As the head writer of a sketch-comedy show on 30 Rock, Tina Fey played a woman who served as both the thin wall separating her workplace from anarchy and an agent of chaos herself. It was her existential lot in life to keep everything together for her coworkers while just barely holding it together herself. Admission, an adaptation of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel, toys with Fey’s persona in compelling ways by casting her as someone who has adopted order as a religion, who sees the world as an incredibly complex system of rules and codes that must be followed to the letter at all times, or else disaster will ensue. For Fey, the orderly life is the only life worth living, but the world proves an awfully messy place, no matter how diligently she attempts to stave off the innate chaos of existence.
Fey stars as a driven 37-year-old Princeton admissions officer who has devoted the last 16 years of her life to her job. Her career has become her identity; even her relationship with professor Michael Sheen seems like an offshoot of her position with the university. Then Fey travels to an alternative high school run by Paul Rudd, an idealistic but troubled world traveler who pushes hard for Fey to develop a relationship with Nat Wolff, an intense young student Rudd suspects may be the grown-up incarnation of the baby Fey gave up for adoption while she was still in college. When Sheen leaves her and Rudd begins to pursue her, Fey is forced to reexamine her life and confront the decades of dissatisfaction and loneliness she’s been assiduously repressing. Lily Tomlin, always a force of nature, roars through the film as Fey’s hurricane of a mother, an impossibly demanding tyrant who attempts to pass off cruelty and selfishness as radical self-reliance.
Reduced to a broad outline, Rudd sounds like an impossible dream man: a dashing, big-hearted do-gooder complete with an adorable, precocious pre-pubescent son (Travaris Spears) he adopted during a stint in Africa. But the film suggests that Rudd has psychological damage of his own to contend with, and that his raising of Spears merely represents the autocratic parenting of his own father in a friendlier, more palatable new form. As a character study of a rigid professional woman in the midst of a personal meltdown, Admission benefits from fine lead performances, deft characterization, and a solid grasp on a very specific cultural milieu. The film’s depiction of the growing mother-son bond between Fey and Wolff is funny and affecting, but while it eschews sentimentality, the film falls apart in a ramshackle, lumbering final act that’s alternately too messy and too tidy. Admission ultimately can’t quite figure out what kind of a film it wants to be, so like a lot of promising but unfocused contenders, it never quite lives up to its potential. But there’s value to be found in its meandering.