DIRECTED BY PAUL WEITZ
STARRING: TINA FEY, PAUL RUDD, LILY TOMLIN, NAT WOLFF, GLORIA REUBEN with WALLACE SHAWN and MICHAEL SHEEN
‘Admission’ has a title that is so mundane it is possibly deceitful. Contextually, it is almost obvious that the word refers to the admissions process at a major university. It cannot be any clearer than, say, a film like ‘Accepted’, which was about (not) getting accepted into college. Coincidentally (and unsurprisingly so), both these words could connote their larger meanings as well. A film that offered a shoddy yet amusing line of defence for the misfits by the misfits, ‘Accepted’ tried to discuss the normative role that university acceptances play in a student’s life, in affirming and/or denying merit. ‘Admission’, similarly, could mean either (or both) of two things. On the one hand, there is admission to the university. On the other, however, it could mean an admission of guilt/regret.
The film begins and ends with a first person confession that Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), an admissions officer at Princeton University, makes to the audience. From the beginning, we see a semblance of the age-old head-hunter remark of “our company is so competitive that I wouldn’t hire myself now if I had to.” Students, parents, teachers and well-wishers – all of them have but one thing to ask Portia. “What’s the success formula?” Alex Hitchins (Will Smith in ‘Hitch’) might have had the courtesy to give you the answer right in the beginning, but Portia drags the question along until the very end – an answer that’s as obvious as the secret recipe to the noodle soup in ‘Kung Fu Panda’.
But if anything, ‘Kung Fu Panda’ was not about the question, was it? In as far as I remember the film, it was about a fat panda co-opting martial arts in a way that it suits him. It was the Americanization of the east; of bringing about drastic change in the art of Kung fu. There is no one right way to do anything. There is your way. There is mine.
In that way, ‘Admission’ is not about Portia answering the question she asks herself. She does give you an answer at the very end – the obvious one. But then you realize it wasn’t necessary. In fact, it only serves to dampen an otherwise remarkable film whose only problem was that it wasn’t exactly as sharp as it ought to have been. This failure of ‘Admission’ to be a truly enthralling movie experience has to do with the fact that it doesn’t really define itself. It’s not over-the-top funny. Neither is it overly heavy on its situational irony. A woman who’s in the business of rejecting/wait-listing people learns to accept things for herself and then tries to bring other people on to her side, fails, decides that the only way to beat the system is to cheat it, only to find herself on the other side of the table where someone else ‘wait-lists’ her. As much as ‘Admission’ features pretty much all things mentioned above, it is still not about showing that woman, perhaps as much as ‘Up in the Air’ was about putting the man of cold logic back in his place.
Still, there are things about Portia that you could comprehensively hate, just about as much as there was in Ryan Bingham (George Clooney in ‘Up in the Air’) that you could hate. They’re people in a tin can with a hand stretched out through a hole in the side as they try to open the lid, lest they suffocate. By comparing it with 'Up in the Air', I only intend to reaffirm the fact that ‘Admission’ had the potential to be something a lot more serious than what it chose to be; what it ended up being. Portia could have been a lot less apologetic about herself. John Pressman (Paul Rudd) could have come out a little stronger with his push. Michael Sheen does a sort of cameo as Portia’s ten-year boyfriend who calls it off because he knocked a Virginia Woolf scholar up. We could have done without that. What Sheen does as Mark is nothing more than tomfoolery that frustrates the film viewer as much as it frustrates Portia herself by constantly showing up, without any real reason.
Nonetheless, if you end up not hating these people, do know that it’s not your fault. For there is something soft and real about snobs like Portia and Ryan, that you might just see them for who they really are. They are people who appear to be in control of their lives, only to break from that grand delusion, reconcile to their limitations and use them as a springboard to mount their successes on. The system ensures that it is impossible to succeed, unless you’re prepared to change the very definition of success itself. Everything changes, then. Like how, to Ryan, giving his protégé (Anna Kendrick) a glowing recommendation is enough of a shot at his own redemption. Like how Portia, for the first time in her life perhaps, fights for something she truly believes in – the candidature of the immensely talented Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff) against the rest of the admissions office, including the soon-to-retire Dean of Admissions (Wallace Shawn) and Corinne (Gloria Reuben), Portia’s competitor for the spot.
The straitjackets in Dean Clarence and Corinne deliver great performances as people who just can’t empathize anymore. To them, an application makes for light reading; they’d take only as much as they can register. Portia, interestingly, imagines students to be sitting in front of her and talking as she reads out each application. While there are moments where she literally ‘pushes them off’ for the sake of over-the-top ruthless humour, the fact that she can visualize candidates sitting across the table and telling her their stories shows her failure (a successful one, perhaps) to be completely objective. It is interesting to note here that we only see how Portia reads an application – not anybody else. It's like the kid in ‘The Sixth Sense’. We see what he sees, and it does what it does to arouse our suspicion. Similarly, Portia sees candidates instead of applications in a clear representation of the demons she battles. We do not see what Corinne sees, we most certainly do not see what Dean Clarence sees. But we assume it is not the same.
Where ‘Admission’ I thought failed the most was in the back stories it furnishes for all its characters in an effort to define why they stood where they stood. John Pressman is a man with an inheritance who had it all – went to Dartmouth, made it to Harvard Law. It is the singular case of success losing all meaning when one has too much of it, so much so that John proceeds to seek it in a different realm; that of helping others define and find their own version of success. Portia Nathan is not only ambitious, she is also a woman and here she makes a departure from Ryan Bingham’s ‘Up in the Air’ story. Feminism creeps in, unavoidably, with Portia’s mother Susannah (Lily Tomlin) making the biggest ‘admission’ of guilt when she says Portia was the product of a thoughtless moment of passion and an unplanned pregnancy. Portia, with the grace and doggy-eyed beauty of Tina Fey, admits that she cares for her child after all, and has to distinguish her kind of empowerment from her Mother’s in a battle, which, I thought, was unnecessary.
Moreover, the feminist allusions are so self-defeating that one worries that might have been the intention. Portia wants a man for herself and the child whom she had given away for adoption at birth. Susannah ‘admits’ to having a similar notion. Corinne, the most pragmatic of the lot, has what she claims is a wonderful relationship with her husband. All these women, in a way, define their successes with their ability to find/have found themselves the ‘right man’ and raising the ‘right child’. Even Helen, the Virginia Woolf scholar whom Mark leaves Portia for, gets pregnant and gets married to him, ultimately. It is here, in defining ‘success’ in the context of a woman, that I felt ‘Admission’ was a little problematic.
Thus, Portia and John both make their cases in ‘Admission’. Portia makes it to the admissions panel at Princeton - who shoot her down with cruel objectivity - and to you in the audience. John makes his case to Portia. They are played by two of the most endearing comics – Fey and Rudd – that Hollywood has ever produced. Their appeal, thus, holds water in front of the audience. Portia accepts John, you accept the both of them. You shall have it no other way. But as far as the film goes, ‘Admission’ is a 2.0 GPA with a glimmer of extra merit, nothing too serious; shows promise, but not quite.
Which means to the cold rationale of our Princeton selves, it makes the wait-list at best.