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'Admission' wait-listed on the way to greatness ★★ 1/2

A fraught romantic comedy, shot through with anxiety about getting your child into an Ivy League school or else, "Admission" stars Tina Fey as a Princeton University admissions officer with a secret. Her genial foil is Paul Rudd, who runs a rural New Hampshire high school that's a progressive Eden of alternative educational grooviness. How these two nice, attractive, funny people find each other is up to the machinery of the source material, a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, adapted with mixed success for the screen by Karen Croner and directed with a calming glow by Paul Weitz, whose attention to relational detail was evident in "About a Boy," "In Good Company" and, more recently, "Being Flynn".

Besides talent and charisma and all that, what's so great about Fey and Rudd? With both, I think, their huge appeal lies in comfort and precision. Fey, the spikier and more vinegar-based of the pair, boasts an improvisation ace's deadly acumen (the good kind of deadly) in timing a rejoinder and sealing a moment with just the right punctuation. Rudd brings a related skill set, but he's a warmer presence, even when he's going for broad strokes in something like "Our Idiot Brother."

The challenge for Fey and Rudd in "Admission" is in finding a looser, more sincere quality, suited to a seriocomic (and ultimately flawed) fable of privilege and the privileged few. The story begins with Portia Nathan, the Fey character, explaining in voice-over the heartbreak and satisfaction of what she goes through with each new admissions process. She lays out the acceptable platitudes she conveys to fretful parents and their high-achieving offspring taking the latest Princeton applicants tour. "If this is the right place for you," she says, fully aware of the implicit lie, "this is the place you'll end up."

Portia's live-in boyfriend, a professor played by Michael Sheen, treats her like a dog — literally; he pats her on the head and calls her loyal — and is about to leave their bed for that of a humorless Virginia Woolf scholar. On a recruiting road trip, Portia visits the New Quest alternative high school, run by John Pressman (Rudd), her college classmate. There's an especially promising and quirky New Quest student (Nat Wolff) applying to Princeton. John has reason to believe this may be the same boy Portia gave up for adoption.

Does he tell her? If so, when? "Admission" nudges Portia and John together, as well as Portia and the Princeton hopeful, Jeremiah, as Fey's increasingly reckless character wrestles with academic politics (she's up for a promotion; Gloria Reuben is excellent as her undermining rival) and personal ethics (helping Jeremiah get into Princeton constitutes a whopping conflict of interest).

"I like stories of screwed-up people who think they don't have anything to offer emotionally but who cobble together an unconventional family," director Weitz wrote in the production notes for "Admission." There's a good movie in this story. The one that got made is roughly half-good. Fey and Rudd almost make too much sense together on screen; they're smooth to the point of frictionless. The film tips between gentle satire of the admissions process and heartfelt pathos, and although the two aren't incompatible on paper, on screen it's a tussle. Weitz's direction isn't helped by the antsy, choppy editing by Joan Sobel. Why so many reaction shots? Do we really need this much help?

It's easy to watch because Fey and Rudd individually and, sometimes, together ensure a level of ease and confidence. But "Admission" is the tale of a woman losing it, and then regaining it. Fey, despite her enormous talent, never seems to lose it in a way that would activate her character's riskier, messier impulses. (You wonder what Lily Tomlin, who plays Fey's difficult mother in "Admission," might've done with the role a generation ago.) And while the film positions Portia as an island of relatable sanity amid poseurs and sniffy hypocrites, make no mistake: It comes down firmly on the side of doing whatever it takes to get into Princeton.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Admission' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating:
PG-13 (for language and some sexual material)
Running time: 1:50
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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