Sometimes you just have to forgive, even if you can’t forget. Just when you think “Admission” is going to be a nauseating comedy about the self-celebration of American privilege, it turns into a very witty and even lovable little romantic comedy – until, at the very end, again becoming a bit of a nauseating self-celebration of American privilege.
I’m forgiving it just about everything because there’s an off-the-wall little exchange that I’m going to be carrying in my head for as long as it’s still able to contain such things.
It’s like this: Tina Fey is our heroine, an admissions officer at Princeton University who reflexively tells hopeful applicants “just be yourself,” but is at the point in life where she’s gotten more than a little sick of who she has become. It comes to a head when her longtime, live-in life partner – a tedious professorial twit – picks a dinner party at their home to announce that he’s leaving her for his pregnant girlfriend.
Needless to say, bad things then happen to the chicken that is about to be served to their dinner guests. Subtly bad, though. This isn’t “Animal House.”
When she goes home to mother – for professional reasons (she’s got a school visitation gig in the neighborhood) – she goes to a party where a world-renowned Russian literature professor at Princeton has evinced considerable interest in her mother. It seems that Mom, in her youth, wrote an extremely controversial book called “The Masculine Myth.” It’s the book and her mother’s whole independent, gun-toting persona that turns the elderly professor on.
When they finally meet at a party, tough-author/mother sizes up the leering prof’s romantic interest instantly, as you might expect from a woman who’d written a book called “The Masculinity Myth.” So she quickly announces “I’ve just had a mastectomy.” He shoots back just as quickly “I’ve just been translated into Finnish.”
That was it for me. Game, set, match. I am officially in this movie’s corner forever just for that one exchange.
It’s very simple: When this movie is bright, witty and funny, it’s really bright, witty and funny and without any doubt about it either. Unfortunately, when all is said and done, though, it’s ultimately a glorification of that part of American privilege that maintains itself so thoughtlessly at the expense of those it prefers not to admit.
For that reason, frankly, I’m somewhat amazed that Princeton allowed its name to be used, but I suppose that’s something parents and young college applicants might want to remember.
Yes, the movie certainly hastens to make clear that it’s infinitely more interested in letting kids into Princeton who are brilliant, passionate and almost insanely “well-rounded” rather than those “legacy” applicants from families that have been sending their grandees-in-training to the school for generations. And that’s true even for those smart kids who may be from poor and, uhhhhhh, unprepossessing families (like the ones where Mom might be a convicted murderer).
But we’re still asked to watch a lovable romantic comedy set in the dog-eat-dog world of kids vying for one of the precious few slots at an elite university, all for the chance at whatever diamond-encrusted brass ring might lie beyond.
At some point, I wanted to yell at everyone in the movie: “David Letterman was a C-student at Ball State! The world is full of Harvard, Princeton and Yale graduates whose lives went absolutely nowhere after college – not to mention kids who didn’t make it all the way through our ‘best’ schools or who went there and found entirely new ways to be miserable for life!”
In the movie, you see though, the always-lovable Fey (University of Virginia, 1992) takes up with Paul Rudd (British American Drama Academy dropout) playing a progressive school headmaster who tells her that his best student – a Princeton hopeful – is the son she gave up for adoption when they both went to Dartmouth.
Don’t let the movie’s first 10 minutes fool you. If you’re longing to leave all these people to their own devices and see something like a “Die Hard” movie, it does quickly find a genuinely lovable and very witty comic groove.
We’re talking Fey and Rudd here after all.
But lovable actors and academic comedies aren’t exactly the most comfortable mix at the movies. It might have worked better if it had been as toxically snobbish and misanthropic as it could have been at others’ expense. Any “others” at all; pick your losers, any losers at all, individual or group, even if they’re not really losers in the slightest.
And too, the opposite might have worked better: If our finale had found one or two things to be said on behalf of democracy, against class rigidities and most of all on behalf of young people who aren’t murdering each other and themselves for success when they’re merely five years past puberty.
Movies so eager to flatter American privilege are – oh, I don’t know – a little yucky, it seems to me, no matter how lovable and witty. I know it seems snobbish to say so, but it’s good to remember the life of that famous Harvard and Yale legacy admittance George W. Bush and point out that obvious American privilege doesn’t really need flattery from the movies.
It does an awfully good job of taking care of that all by itself.
Starring: Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, Gloria Reuben, Wallace Shawn
Director: Paul Weitz
Running time: 107 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for profanity and adult subject matter.
The Lowdown: A Princeton University admissions officer falls in love with the headmaster of a progressive school and discovers an applicant who may be the son she gave up for adoption.