Tina Fey, whose funny, brainy persona shined so brightly on her NBC show "30 Rock," hasn't exactly lit up the big screen with the comedies "Baby Mama" and "Date Night." Blame the lukewarm material or her non-hunky co-stars, Greg Kinnear and Steve Carell, but audiences have yet to see the sharply written comedy, and the sexy male lead, that can bring out Fey's inner Rosalind Russell.
"Admission," directed by Paul Weitz ("About a Boy"), isn't the one. It promisingly pairs Fey with the dreamy-funny Paul Rudd, though they generate warmth without ever catching fire. The bigger problem is the story they're in. "Admission," based on Jean Hanff Korelitz's 2009 novel, is the kind of Hollywood hokum that Fey would have skewered on a spit with a Weekend Update on "Saturday Night Live."
Fey plays Portia Nathan, a high-strung Princeton admissions officer, while Rudd is John Pressman, freewheeling teacher at an earthy-crunchy high school, New Quest. Paul wants Portia to meet his student Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), who is awkward, brilliant and -- by the way -- apparently the son that Portia gave up for adoption.
It's fodder for aw-shucks humor as Portia, daughter of a radical feminist (Lily Tomlin, fierce and funny), melts helplessly into a doting, fretting, semistalking mommy. And like many a mother before her, Portia decides her son needs to attend Princeton. (Jeremiah, clueless, thinks Portia is merely sweet. Or a cougar.)
While Portia and Paul canoodle, "Admission" seems unaware that its protagonists have completely abandoned their ethics. John, trying to place a pet student in an Ivy League school, sleeps with a gatekeeper and baldly encourages nepotism; Portia, in total agreement, spends the entire movie secretly pulling strings. Would you root for these two? Imagine uncovering this plot at a college that rejected your child.
It's odd that Fey, so sharp and incisive on the small screen, would choose a movie with such blinkered ideas. For now, she's still waiting for her close-up.
PLOT A hard-nosed Princeton admissions officer discovers that one hopeful applicant might be her son.
BOTTOM LINE Fey and Rudd have their charms, but the movie's off-kilter ethics dampen the romance. Let's hope college decisions aren't really made this way.