“Admissions” from the Eyes of Someone Who’s Worked in the Field

Once upon a time during the best summer I’ve had to date, not only was I fortunate enough to live with my Snippets co-blogger, but I also had the great pleasure of being chosen amongst over one-hundred applicants to represent Providence College as a “Summer Student Admissions Worker”. For me, it felt like I had somehow been randomly selected to hang out with eleven of PC’s most charismatic, funny, ridiculously good-looking, and all-around best students. How in the hell did I fit in, then? Well, a bit like this:

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(I’m the one being mounted) The dozen of us spent the summer giving tours and selling the school to prospective students, along with giving them the scoop on what it takes to become a Friar. Working closely with the Admissions Counselors, we got an in-depth look at the selection process and how to analyze applications. While I was far from a counselor myself, my experiences grant me a certain perspective that make me self-righteously critical of a film like “Admission”.

Recently released, “Admission” details the misadventures of Portia (Tina Fey), a Princeton Admissions Counselor who thrives in a simple and neatly arranged life of reading college applications and coexisting with her condescending English-professor boyfriend of ten years in a childless adult relationship that “doesn’t believe in marriage”. She even has an overly manicured bonsai tree to demonstrate her controlled, contained life. When Princeton drops to #2 on the national rankings, losing the top spot to an unnamed but presumably Ivy League competitor, Portia’s boss announced his retirement.

That’s when her neat world gets shaken up: Portia’s competition to become the future Dean of Admission is her passive aggressive and uber-efficient frenemy Corinne. In a display of one-upmanship, she goes out of her way to visit an alternative school in Vermont while on her annual recruiting trip. There, she sparks a charming relationship with John (Paul Rudd), the school’s director and world traveler who’s out to save everyone. He’s taken an awkward high school student under his wing who may or may not be Portia’s long-lost biological son that she gave up for adoption. Surprise!

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If you’re a bit overwhelmed and/or confused by the plot, then you’re already familiar with the most glaringly apparent aspect that held this movie back from being really good. I didn’t even tell you how Portia’s scene stealer boyfriend (Michael Sheen) leaves Portia because he gets a crazy Virginia Woolf scholar pregnant with twins, leaving her to flounder and struggle in a mountain of applications and stress. And Paul Rudd’s character has an adopted Ugandan son who’s entire family died in a gruesome car crash years ago. Oh, and Portia’s mother is a feminist scholar who lives alone in a remote house with her starving greyhounds, bicycle workshop, and double-barreled shotgun. Whew! Got it all.

While these many plot lines and details aren’t always the most logical and make the movie into a cluster of confusion at times, “Admission” is still able to work some charm. Every character outside of academia is incredibly pleasant to watch on camera, especially Paul Rudd’s depiction of a smirking good samaritan. Then, strangely enough, every Admissions officer or college professor that we meet winds up being a caricature of reality and an over-exaggeration of stereotypes that we’ve seen countless times before in college movies.

When “Admission” deals directly with College Admissions as an industry, it seems to miss the mark just a bit. The Princeton Admissions office buzzes with energy and finesse akin to Sterling Cooper (re: the Mad Men office). It feels like a stale but efficient machine, whereas in my experiences college admissions is about love of a school and even more so, a community. In the Princeton office, it’s about being the best and being on top and everything selfishly elitist with a hint of self-preservation. Even the Committee process, where the whole admissions staff locks themselves in a conference room to duke it out for who makes the cut in the incoming freshman class is far too clean and neat. Where are the sweat pants? Where are the 1:00 AM deliveries? I’ve only heard legends about the harrowing experiences of Committee, but when we see it at Princeton it feels unbelievably tame. Yet again, higher education is portrayed with stereotypes without any depth or personality.

The montage of Portia on her recruitment trip early in the movie is yet another great example of this. She goes to high school after high school – most of them private and seemingly Catholic – to tantalize students with that one tip that will help them get in. Children are on the edge of their seats while Portia delivers her perfectly rehearsed spiel about the hard work, passion, and individuality that is necessary to become a part of the Princeton elite, as if every child in America should aspire to this unachievable dream.

But then she shows up at The New Quest School and meets John (Paul Rudd). And he’s like, “heyyy!”

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The hyper-liberal, new age student body tears apart the pompous and elitist institution that she represents. The students raise a lot of direct and blatant criticisms from virtually every liberal standpoint, questioning the traditional college experience altogether in favor of the new-age entrepreneurial spirit that has been gaining more and more popularity in recent years. Portia shoots right back with the rebuttal that if they want to change the world, then in most cases they need a college degree to do it. Doctors need PhD’s. Lawyers need to go to Law School. Altogether, the scene is a bit heavy-handed but neatly displays both sides of the argument. In their respective roles, Portia and John also come to represent both sides of the spectrum.

Interestingly enough, it’s their inevitable union that shows us the err of both extremes. Sometimes it’s better to stay in one place and settle down rather than wander the world building irrigation systems. And sometimes it’s better to be more adventurous rather than spend too much time with the soul-crushing boredom that overly regimented lifestyles offer. Portia’s job and outlook on life is jeopardized by meeting her would-be son and trying to help his incredibly awkward and brilliant but woefully unqualified self get into his dream school: Princeton (of course). And in much the same way, John’s wanderlust is tamed by the companionship he finds with Portia.

Parenthood is another of the themes that is toyed with but never fully fleshed out in “Admission”. You have John who adopted a Ugandan orphan and also mentors who may or may not be Portia’s biological son that she basically gave up so that she wouldn’t make the same single mother mistakes that her own mother made. How much responsibility do these various kinds of parents have to take to do the right thing? And why is it that we all try so hard to be the opposite kinds of parents that our parents were, only to realize that the extreme backlash is always too much? It’s another interesting question that gets raised amongst many that is never solved during a movie that is at once both thematically overambitious and scripturally far too simple to make it work.

All in all, “Admission” is an enjoyable and pleasantly amusing flick, but the typically stellar comedic lead roles of Fey and Rudd seem a bit wasted on a confusing plot with a script that can’t handle itself seriously enough. The laughs aren’t loud enough, but there are still a fair share of chuckles to be had here. Provocative questions are hinted towards but never really explored with the eventual take-home message being shrouded in a veneer that is definitely pleasant enough to get you to watch it.

-CP

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