Admission could be a terrific satire of college politics, or the story of a childless woman who learns the joy of parenting, or even a rom-com where an uptight professional falls for a tree hugger.
Instead, the new dramedy starring Paul Rudd and Tina Fey teases all of the above without settling on a theme. It's a frustrating experience, especially since Rudd and Fey could click if given the right material.
Fey stars as Portia, a veteran admissions officer at Princeton University. We're told 26,000 students apply each year but only a thousand make the cut. Parents of potential students grovel at Portia's feet for just the right tip to win admission, and Portia moves with a confidence born from that faux adulation.
Her life's static quality ends when her boyfriend (Michael Sheen in an embarrassingly weak role) leaves her, and she meets the head of a tiny New England high school on a work trip.
John (Rudd) is delighted when Portia visits his school to lend admissions tips to his charges. He has more on his mind that Princeton, though. Seems he's grown fond of a hyper-smart young man named Jeremiah (an appealing Nat Wolff) and thinks Portia is his long-lost mom.
That doesn't sound appealing to her, particularly since she's the daughter of an uber-feminist (Lily Tomlin, sporting a Bella Abzug tat on her shoulder).
Yet the more Portia gets to know Jeremiah, an eclectic child with a heart as big as his brain, the more she thinks she might want to be a part of his life.
Meanwhile, Portia is in a battle with a steely-eyed colleague (Gloria Reuben) to replace their boss at Princeton.
Did we mention the movie is trying to match up Portia and John, and using such high-larious sequences as the duo helping a cow give birth to do it?
The insights gleaned from the tortured admissions process could fuel Admission all on their own, and you'll wish the film dropped all the other flailing story elements and focus on just that. Or, maybe Admission could mock parents who believe with all of their hearts that anything less than an Ivy League school for their kids is tantamount to disaster. Instead, we wait ... and wait ... for Portia and John to flash the kind of chemistry expected of them.
Rudd and Fey share a first kiss that comes out of the blue and doesn't make us root for them any harder.
The film occasionally stops, as if legally bound, to trot out a tired rom-com moment or two. A crisp scene where Portia defly handles questions from John's hard-left students is handled well, but the next such satisfying moment takes a while to arrive.
The third act is bogged down with revelation exhaustion, shaking our infrequently stirred emotions in unpleasant ways. And so Admission ends with all the promise of a high schooler with an impeccable transcript who writes his college essay with a fat purple crayon.