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Tina Fey’s ‘Admission’ Is Smarter and Savvier Than it Looks

If the bad news about Admission, the new Tina Fey-Paul Rudd vehicle from director Paul Weitz, is that it won’t quite fill that already gaping 30 Rock-size hole in your heart, the good news is that it is an altogether smarter and more interesting film than its trailers promise. It is neither a broad comedy nor a dopey rom-com; it’s actually, surprisingly enough, a seriocomic drama in something resembling the Alexander Payne mold, a slightly eccentric examination of flawed people doing their very best. It’s less traditionally comic than Baby Mama and Date Night, Fey’s previous — likable and utterly forgettable — big screen vehicles, and finds her moving slightly but surely out of her Lemon-esque comfort zone. This is a good thing.

She plays Portia Nathan, admissions officer (and thus gatekeeper) at Princeton University. She’s been there for 16 years. She appears solid, sturdy, and in total control: she’s good at her job, and has a “simple” relationship with her live-in boyfriend (Michael Sheen, proving again that few are better at playing the loathsome, intellectual twit). As part of her recruiting tour, she visits a “new development school” run by a former classmate (Paul Rudd), and therein lie the story’s two sticky wickets: there’s a spark between her and Rudd, and he tells her that one of his students (Nat Wolff) is the son she gave up for adoption back when they were in college.

The former angle is the one that’s getting all the play in the ads and posters, and it’s the easily exploitable one: these are pretty much the two most likable people in the planet, Fey with her quick wit and brainy hots, Rudd turning on the flannel-shirted, aw-shucks charm; putting them together is a no-brainer.

But it’s the other strand that keeps the movie going, and makes it interesting. Screenwriter Karen Croner (adapting Jean Hanff Korelitz’s book) wades into some fairly murky moral/ethical waters, and Fey, thankfully, is game. She’s playing more serious dramatic beats here than she ever has, and does so capably; the role still allows her to do what she does well (her throwaway laugh lines are especially lovely), but there’s a weight to the character, a gravity that Fey shoulders with ease. She is, as suspected, a movie star. Rudd’s not doing much here he hasn’t done before, but (as he did with Hugh Grant in About a Boy) director Weitz gives his regular schtick just a touch of extra poignancy. And whoever thought to cast Lily Tomlin as Fey’s mother deserves a medal.

Admission lays it on a little thick in the third act, and even before then, the picture occasionally gets in its own way; the pieces don’t always fit as snugly as they should, particularly when it comes to Sheen (whose frequent reappearances are schlocky, sitcom stuff). But it’s one of those films that you welcome even when it’s not quite working. More than anything, it’s a kind film, funny and idiosyncratic — and it offers up enough Fey to get us by for a while.

Admission opens tomorrow in wide release.

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