Admissions – movie review

Admissions (on netflix)


Howard Adelman

After I retired from YorkUniversity ten years ago, I was given a research position at PrincetonUniversity where I spent a year. I then was invited back the next year to teach a course at the WoodrowWilsonSchool. It was a wonderful experience and Princeton is an exceptional university. The two years at Princeton were enhanced many times over because I was able to spend a lot more time with three of my grandchildren. My oldest son, Jeremy, is the Walter Samuel Carpenter III Professor of Spanish Civilization and Culture and was then chair of the History Department at PrincetonUniversity. My daughter-in-law, Debbie Prentice, was and still is the Chair of the Psychology Department at Princeton.

The movie, Admissions, is set at Princeton and focuses on the Admissions Department. I had only two things to do with Admissions when I was at Princeton. The first was very indirect, I was the beneficiary of ten brilliant students in my graduate class and the Dean would not allow me to admit one single additional student to the class lest Princeton standards be lowered. Second, I took part in a weekly Wednesday breakfast discussion group on Africa. At one of these breakfast meetings, the president of the university, who had spent two years in Africa, joined us for breakfast and the discussion. Afterwards, I told her about a student I had met in the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya when I was working in the camp. He was Somali and had spent his whole life in that camp. He had never had a pair of shoes. He had never been on a computer. He had studied with 71 other students in his class with 7 students sitting in a row sitting on a cement bench at a cement table all sharing a single text in temperatures that often exceeded 40 degrees Celsius. Yet he managed to stand 6th in the Kenya-wide high school matriculation exams.

I told the President that that student should be given an opportunity and Princeton should admit him. She thought it was a great idea, told me to go to Admissions and give them the details. She would arrange to have a faculty member interview him in Nairobi if I could arrange to get him there. I contacted CARE Canada and they arranged to fly him to Nairobi where he was interviewed. Princeton admitted him. He came, spent four years at Princeton and graduated. The first thing he learned was how to tie shoelaces.

The film, Admissions, is not about the ease of getting into Princeton if you are an exceptional student from a very deprived background, but uses the difficulty for any student to get in as a comedic backdrop.  Princeton only admits about 5% of those who apply. In the movie, Princeton has just slipped into the second best university in America from its previous ranking for the previous few years of first place. The Admissions Department is urged by the Dean of Admissions, Clarence Hall (Wallace Shawn) to make sure Princeton regains first place by ensuring the best entry class ever.

There is a ritual in America where parents (predominantly middle class) spend the spring term when their child is in Grade 11 visiting universities, presumably to help their son or daughter choose the school that best suits them. In reality, a good part of the reason for those visits is that the Admissions Departments track those applicants who visit and use the visit as one way to test the student’s commitment to accepting an offer from the university visited. For a school like Princeton, or any of the other top schools, they take it as an insult if students turn down their offers.

So the American big seasonal spring ritual for parents anxious to see their child enrolled in a top school is not Easter but the neurotic and desperate effort to impress Admissions officers with the student’s scholarly excellence, wide interests, leadership skills, and, perhaps most important of all, the student’s ability to impress the Admissions Committee that this applicant is one of the very elite among the elite and deserving of admission to the school of his or her choice. The segment when the film offers brief profiles of these students and then drops them through a trap door is a delightful piece of comedy, but the references to legacy admissions is just cloudy rather than incisively comedic. Because my grandson Sammy has been brought up by two professors who have spurned the mad admissions process as they watch batches of visiting students traipse around campus, they will ensure that Sammy gets to visit the top schools of his choice – they have limited it to three – but they refuse to be troubled by the issue. Sammy is even more laid back – or so he seems to me – about the issue.

The movie is built around the conceit that other parents cannot afford that aplomb. I hoped to watch a movie that either satirized the neurotic desperation of the parents and their child or else the universities for helping create and perpetuate such a feeding frenzy. The film offers only a few such opportunities and instead plays with gentle mellow humour and understanding of that parental anxiety and the university quest for status. The mood is tolerant and accepting rather than sharply critical.

The movie is built around the double problem of seeing the issue in a comedic way from the perspective of the Associate Admissions Office – Portia Nathan – who has to visit schools and wrestle with admissions, at the same time that she learns, or believes she learns, that the illegitimate son she bore seventeen years ago is applying to Princeton. So she is the mother of an applicant and an admissions officer at the same time and the film plays on an old trope in fiction of an adopted child of unknown parentage but with a modern twist at the end.

The movie is a light romp through this zaniness built around this obsessive compulsive but occasionally spontaneous and impulsive supposedly childless Admissions Officer who evidently displayed a chronic aversion to children as well as a propensity that is exhibited in the movie of being unlucky in love. Portia chose that career presumably because her spontaneity as a young girl in trying to follow in the footsteps of her outlandish mother, Suzanne, who is the author of The Masculine Myth, ended up in disaster. She went straight and became a control freak, directly the opposite of her mother played with great gusto by Lily Tomlin. The movie, of course, condenses both stages of visiting and applying to the same semester and certainly distorts the process for comedic effect. I thought the movie would be a satire of the whole mad process, but even in the hilarious scene dealing with the somewhat capricious selection process, the movie, while poking fun at it, is more bland than biting.

Tina Fey as the Admissions officer makes the film. Hundreds of other actresses would have buried the movie. Fey keeps it breathing and lends the script sparkle. Paul Rudd gives a very good performance as John Pressman, the teacher at the alternative high school where the young lad, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), is finishing high school and has decided he wants to get into Princeton. Rudd drops his one liner quickie jokes like a stand up comic with perfect timing while convincing the audience that he is the offbeat erious environmentalist rebel who rejected Harvard law school and an upper crust upbringing. Nat Wolff, on the other, is just too serious and too much the nerd while not at all looking the part. He has one problem. Though brilliant on his admission test scores without ever having taken a preparatory course or attended a practice school for his GPAs, he has lousy marks and no record as a volunteer, school president, editor of the yearbook or athletic career. He is just your everyday autodidact nerd and is a parody of my grandson. Though he has my grandson’s charm, he lacks my grandson’s self-deprecating dry wit and self-confidence that could have made the part very funny. The role is poorly written and poorly cast.

In the movie, the dilemma is that Jeremiah as the applicant is too risky and not suitable for Princeton. But we are never convinced of this so the comedy does not work at its very core.

I will not tell you how Portia Nathan gets around the problem But there is more than a passing glance to her namesake in The Merchant of Venice where, in the Shakespearian version, mercy is stressed as blessing both the giver and the receiver, but to get to that mercy, legal procedures need to be sidestepped. But this Portia does not emerge a winner. The film is a light but reasonably well written comedy (Karen Croner) and well directed by Paul Weitz. There are a number of small well acted humorous character roles – Michael Sheen as the poet and first lover of Portia. However, the Dean of Students (Clarence Hall played by Wallace Shawn) offers only a few opportunities for laughs and Corrine, Gloria Reuben as Portia’s rival for succeeding Clarence as Dean of Admissions, is given not one. When you see the openings that are just never seized, you want to scream at the movie rather than the parental or university madness.

Do not go out of your way to watch this movie – except if you have a connection with Princeton. Do not mark accept or reject, but put it on your waiting list for a time when you have no better choice. The movie is a pleasant diversion – nothing more. See it if you like a number of funny lines and some delightful characters, but do not expect to learn the secret of how to get into Princeton.

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