Admission reviewed by Armond White for CityArts

By Armond White

Poor Tina Fey is still doing her Sarah Palin impersonation in Admission, the new comedy where she is supposed to portray Portia Nathan, a Princeton University admissions officer who discovers the sensitivity she has misplaced due to careerism. Admitting her lifelong failings, get it?

Problem is, Fey’s overdone, endlessly repeated political caricature has stunted her ability to portray a human being. That robotic inhumanity of her Saturday Night Live skit may have been what appealed to some about Fey’s partisan impersonation (helping to encourage their political animus) but it seems to have cost her the subtlety and sensitivity an actress needs to bring appeal and revelation to a full characterization.

It doesn’t help that Karen Croner’s screenplay (with possible partial improvisation by Fey) doesn’t create a coherence personality for Portia who flits from being a callous go-getter to a pathetic complainer to a desperate do-gooder. (“Hi, there!” Portia‘s insincere, rote-chirpy greeting is merely one of Fey’s Palinisms like “You betcha!”.) Portia’s personality runs all over the campus and Fey never gets her orientation. No contemporary film actress has done anything as embarrassing as the moment Portia goes on a date with a student’s mentor John (Paul Rudd) and she rambles on about the words “fork” and “happy”–this attempt at an idiosyncratic comic routine just makes Fey dithery and impertinent.

As Admission mixes-up its plot combining ambitious college candidates, indifferent university workers, Portia’s selfish feminism, her resentment towards her pioneering feminist mother Susannah (Lily Tomlin), her attraction to John, her unprofessional dedication to Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), a gifted applicant, director Paul Weitz seems unsure where to place the emotional or visual emphasis. The actors frequently seem to looking past each other and the poignant moments are as haphazard as the goofy ones. Fey exposes her lightweight pseudo-Annie Hall shtick.

Contrast Fey to Tomlin’s Susannah, a tough yet warm warrior who seems to look right through Fey’s silliness and Wolff’s believably awkward teenager whose sincerity never links with a crucial detail about Portia’s past. This failure to create a humane characterization and focus on the issues of college education, life choices, youthful folly and personal obligation gets especially messy when Portia tries manipulating her co-workers. The film slips right past legacy and privilege–the only points about college admissions worthy of narrative focus. It takes Portia’s chicanery for granted, as cute. This may have some connection to the mean preening behind Fey’s Palin and the thin lack of empathy in those supposedly comedic mannerisms. Admission is an inadvertent confession of Tina Fey’s shrillness.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair

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