Tuesday, October 22, 2013

DENY: a review of "Admission"

"ADMISSION"
Based upon the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Screenplay Written by Karen Croner
Directed by Paul Weitz
* (one star)

If Tina Fey is going to continue to act in feature films, then she seriously needs to just step up to the plate and just develop her own projects and write her own films to ensure that she will at long last be in a movie that is worthy of her immense talents.

In my previous review of Writer/Director Nicole Holofcener's lovely "Enough Said," I remarked how that film' star, the great comedic actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus has seemed to habitually exuded a fierce sense of quality control with the projects she chose to associate herself with. I truly an unable to think of a time when the character she played felt to be beneath the actual human being that I am perceiving Louis-Dreyfus to be. With Tina Fey, on the other hand, her choices have fallen far shorter by comparison and in my mind, I cannot see why this is happening at all.

Tina Fey has proven over and over again that she is easily one of the sharpest comedic and satirical minds working today. Her years as Head Writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live," which even includes her subsequent guest appearances where her brilliant evisceration of a certain half term Alaskian Governor who shall remain nameless have become legendary, would be proof enough of her unquestionable skills. But let's also throw in her Emmy Award winning television series "30 Rock," her best selling autobiographical book Bossypants, and her 2010 award of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to boot and Fey's talents and smarts are blindingly evident!

Yet, when it comes to Fey's movie choices, from "Baby Mama" (2008) to "Date Night" (2010) and now "Admission," Director Paul Weitz's anemic and plastic romantic comedy-drama, Fey once again is subjected to portraying a character that is obviously not written towards her strengths or is operating anywhere near her level. Everything again feels so bubble headed and dumbed down that these films all feel like the very things that Fey would satirize rather than star in straight faced as I just cannot believe that the characters she portrays and the movies in which they appear are anywhere near as smart as I am perceiving her to be in real life. Let's face it, the only film in Tina Fey's short filmography that even represents her fierce talents is Director Mark Waters' "Mean Girls" (2004), the one film that she wrote and brilliantly adapted from Author Rosalind Wiseman's non-fiction social critique Queen Bees And Wannabees. Dear readers, I love Tina Fey! I adore Tina Fey! I just wish for her to be in a film that is her equal. Unfortunately, "Admission" is barely worth the viewing I gave and even less worthy of the time I am taking to write this review.   

Tina Fey stars in "Admission" as Princeton Admissions Officer Portia Nathan who, along with her colleagues, is deep in the throes of the annual college application onslaught, complete with campus tours, campus visits and recruiting speeches, and the seemingly bottomless reading of essays, transcripts and standardized testing scores. Portia is soon contacted by the affable John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a former college classmate and now, a teacher and one of the heads of Quest, a rural, alternative high school in New Hampshire, who requests that Portia visit his school as this year will mark the school very first graduating class. John also asks of Portia to please take special attention with 18 year old Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff), an auto-didactic who may or may not also be the child Portia gave up for adoption during her college days. This revelation forces Portia to fully re-examine her life choices from her college days, to her long term relationship with the stuffy poetry scholar Mark (Michael Sheen), to her strained relationship with her unrepentantly militant feminist Mother, Susannah (Lily Tomlin), to her budding feelings towards John and the responsibilities she feels she must carry towards Jeremiah all the way to re-thinking her overall career.

From that plot description, it would seem that "Admission" would not only be a compelling film that could handsomely encapsulate the college admissions process with romance, comedy and probing drama, the film could also be the one to play entirely towards Tina Fey's strengths, possibly even elevating her game and broadening her acting chops. In fact, the film does indeed start off fairly well by establishing the rigorous detail of Portia's life and juxtaposing the unfair and arbitrary competition teenagers are forced into just to go to school against the competition the admissions officers experience as they are faced against each other. An early sequence set at Quest, where Portia is challenged by the students as to the validity of a college experience and education at Princeton, and even the futility of obtaining a college education at all, is easily the film's strongest scene as it exhibits the very sharp, smart, and even savage humor and dialogue that matches Fey's creative aesthetics. At this early stage, everything seems to point "Admission" squarely in the right direction. But not so fast, as sharpness quickly transforms to dullness, smartness becomes empty headed-ness and "Admission" quickly nose-dives into a film that becomes completely toothless.

Now, just so you know, my reaction towards this film has nothing to do with my reaction towards the novel, which I have read. Truth be told, I was rather lukewarm to the book as I found it to be strongly written with a enjoyable literary palate yet it was also a book that I felt was badly plotted, where revelations are discovered looooooong before Portia and we just have to wait and wait and wait and wait for her to catch up, a quality which made for torpid reading. That said, there was never a moment within the book that felt false, where characters were betrayed by the plot and forced to engage in behavior and dialogue that was beneath what Author Jean Hanff Korelitz had set up.

With film adaptations, like I have always expressed, books are books and movies are movies and Admission the novel, while not without humor or even a sense of satire, is indeed pitched at a more serious, dramatic and therefore more realistic level whereas this film version is decidedly more comedic. This tonal change would be just fine if Paul Weitz had just allowed the events to unfold as organically as possible. Returning to "Enough Said" for a moment, I just cannot stress greater just how important and invigorating it was to regard a film that just allowed its characters and situations to unfold as naturally as possible, affording the comedy, the drama, the heartache and the beautiful chemistry between Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini to coalesce so richly. Conversely with "Admission," Weitz sacrificed the story's inherent intelligence, integrity, comedy, romance and more difficult and painful dramatic sections for prefabricated likability designed solely to ensure mass appeal and potential box office results and rendering everything about "Admission" down to being bland and bloodless.

This was a terrible technique Weitz utilized with his adaptation of Nick Hornby's About A Boy, a film that was critically acclaimed and well loved by audiences, yet for my sense and sensibilities completely derailed the story by entirely stripping its rawness, resulting in a film that was unbearably soulless. "Admission"' suffers the exact same fate as Weitz elevates the comedic and romantic comedy elements so awkwardly and forcefully that any emotion between characters feels sadly manufactured and the humor feels desperate, thus completely betraying who these characters really are. A scene with a cow giving birth provides the requisite bathroom humor which then leads to the shamelessly forced "nudge-nudge-wink-wink" pseudo sexual tension between Fey and Rudd's characters, for instance. Additionally, an invented sequence where Portia, desiring to check in on the Princeton visiting Jeremiah, sneaks into a college party, uncomfortably wearing a hoodie and woodenly speaking that "teen lingo" felt desperate, just like another invented scene where Portai's Mother brandishes a shotgun. Portia relationship with Mark, explored with appropriate heartbreak in the novel is just treated for uneventful throwaway laughs in the film. And if my memory about the novel is serving me correctly, I am almost 100% positive that with this film, even the truth of whether Jeremiah is Portia's long abandoned child has been altered. If so, it would only have been for no apparent reason other than, I guess, to ensure that the potential film audience will not judge Portia too harshly and still find her completely "likable."
  
Did Weitz just not have any trust in his source material or even Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, two of our most likable actors, who are each also very attractive leads to regard, with just having the story unfold naturally and to also have Fey and Rudd naturally embody these characters? Nearly every moment within "Admission" feels so false and none of what Weitz is trying to achieve is ever earned. "Admission" is a film that falls face first into the same tired old Hollywood traps of canned situations and emotions that have long grown tiresome and regrettable. With regards to Tina Fey, you just do not buy her in these situations as they are displayed throughout the film and it just made me realize once again that possibly speaking to Tina Fey in person or over-hearing her in public at a restaurant perhaps would be much funnier, more sophisticated and profoundly more insightful than almost everything in this movie, which has shown to be another waste of her considerable talents. If I were able, I would take Tina Fey by the shoulders and shake her from side to side for continuing to squander herself on roles and projects that are far beneath her when she truly does not have to and she knows better!

"He likes me because I'm boring," explains Tina Fey as Portia to Paul Rudd's character regarding his son. Maybe so. But "boring" is not how any of us would even begin to describe Tina Fey, and that description is not why we all love her. Where is that wit, that spark, that fearless bite in Fey's film roles that she so desperately needs? Wherever it is, I sincerely hopes that she finds it and utilizes it soon. But for now, "Admission" is yet another underachieving effort that is not worth your time and energy whatsoever.

Ms. Fey, with all due respect, you really need to begin applying yourself!!

SAVAGE POSTSCRIPT
If you would rather see a much better film that details the anxieties of the college application process, for both teenagers and the admissions officers, and is handled with much more warmth, humor, satire, and romance then please allow me to point you towards Director Savage Steve Holland's barely seen "How I Got Into College" (1989). While it won't shift the planet's axis or anything and aspects about it may have become somewhat dated, it remains a light, charming, entertaining film that for me, has held up very gently after all of these years.

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