At a time when studio comedies are driven primarily by the hook (“They’re rival a cappella groups!”) or the gag (“Fattie fall down!”), there’s something to be said for the admirable few filmmakers who still try to instill their laughers with an innately humane approach in the vein of Hal Ashby and Elaine May, directors like Alexander Payne and the Weitz brothers, Paul and Chris, who would appear to alternate every for-hire gig (“Little Fockers,” “The Twilight Saga: New Moon”) with something a bit more personal (“A Better Life,” “Being Flynn”).
“Admission” earnestly straddles the line between both worlds, with characters as defined by uncharacteristic outbursts and plot-stalling misunderstandings as they are their distinctly established families, whether those families are accidental, adopted or altogether absent. The Weitzes' best stuff -- “About a Boy” and “In Good Company” -- tends to strike that critical character-driven balance, but as a dramedy, this one is equal parts amiable and weightless, tough to take seriously and yet light on honest laughs.
Of course, perhaps it’s unfair to assume that the pairing of Tina Fey and Paul Rudd might instantly result in the Funniest Movie Ever Made. Director Paul Weitz is aiming for something a bit more grounded as Princeton admissions officer Portia (Fey) goes about contending with the fact that John (Rudd), the persistent founder of a progressive school in upstate NY and an old college classmate, thinks that he has a prodigy on his hands in the form of Jeremiah (Nat Wolff). Furthermore, he’s convinced that Jeremiah is the son that Portia gave up for adoption so long ago, a revelation which sends her orderly career into a tailspin.
In adapting Jean Hanff Korelitz’ novel of the same name, screenwriter Karen Croner (“One True Thing”) tries to contrast Portia’s potential ethical compromise on the eve of a promotion against her abandonment guilt, and to present a possible relationship with the more impulsive John after she finds herself ditched by long-time boyfriend Mark (Michael Sheen, all awkward grins) in a very public fashion. With Fey in the role of harried singleton, though, it’s hard to avoid comparing Portia to “30 Rock’s” Liz Lemon or the baby-crazed professional she played in 2008’s much broader “Baby Mama,” and while she’s clearly aced romantic neuroses as a comedienne, all her fluster feels a bit too twice-baked this time around.
Rudd shoots for sincerity, but between his mealy-mouthed approach to giving Portia the big news and glaring lack of consideration for the conflict caused by dropping a personal bomb on a college admissions officer and then asking them for an application advantage, it’s hard to root for his character, no matter how well he means or how often he moves (much to his adopted son’s chagrin). To his credit, Wolff manages to be convincingly intellectual without succumbing to social paralysis; Wallace Shawn and Gloria Reuben are appropriately stiff as Portia’s academic colleagues; and Lily Tomlin very nearly walks away with the whole kit and kaboodle as her free-wheeling mother, whose cavalier ways are as much as a defense mechanism as John’s wanderlust or Portia’s workaholism.
Every once in a while, Weitz keys on an off-kilter vibe, such as a birthday party that offers the one-two punch of Jeremiah’s perfectly inert philosopher ventriloquism and the sudden appearance of a dove room -- it's exactly what it sounds like -- or when one imagined applicant smugly reminds Portia that her father is both Cuban and in a wheelchair. Actions do have their consequences, though, and Weitz doesn’t try to end things too tidily for their own good. Were only that he had succeeded in committing to one of those films over the other, then “Admission” might have been this year’s “Liberal Arts” rather than this year’s “Smart People.”