“Admission” Gets Waitlisted

Crabby has a flashback…

The novel Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz is an amusing diversion by a Princeton author who is NOT Joyce Carol Oates. (Given Ms. Oates’s output, Crabby now believes that she, like Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon, is really a front for a stable of writers, but that’s beside the point.) The novel’s main character, Portia Nathan, is a Princeton admission officer whose personal and professional lives are turned upside down by a series of events and revelations that cause her at one point to refuse to leave her house. Bruised in her relationship and increasingly drawn into a strange connection with a young Princeton applicant, Portia’s once secure, sedate, and predictable world shatters; at the same time, she bears the responsibility of ensuring the one of the nation’s great universities maintains its reputation for accepting the best and the brightest. She must try to bear her personal burdens even as they impinge more and more on her professional life.

Crabby has seen the film of the book, also titled “Admission,” but the word no longer resonates with multiple meanings: It firmly and oafishly refers only to the prospect of getting admitted (get it?) to Princeton, with, oh well, yes, a side story about Portia’s having given up a child as an undergraduate who may or may not be the autodidactic genius she meets at the groovy alternative school in GPS-free New Hampshire. (To its credit, the film assumes its audience is intelligent enough not to have to have “autodidact” defined for it.)

Tina Fey plays Portia and Paul Rudd plays groovy-school-head and multiple Princeton legacy Handsome Bashful Guy in a pairing that made Crabby long for the flash and spark of Hepburn and Tracy. Both are pleasant to watch and when they’re given the opportunity, they play nicely off each other. Fey can make small throwaway moments funny and wistful, such as when, in a funk, she dusts her desk with a can of compressed air.

Crabby genuinely likes Tina Fey, and when Portia’s edges showed, he eagerly awaited more, but always there was a detour. As a veteran college admission officer and college counselor at a highly competitive high school, Crabby winced and squirmed at all the touches of admission officer performance the film got right: the endless repetition of tag lines, the tired cheerfulness in front of yet another roomful of eager yet doomed high schoolers, and so on. Artfully observed!

Crabby knew ahead of time this would not be a film about the craziness of the college admission game; it’s just unfortunate that Portia’s personal story was so flattened that it couldn’t really carry the load of the film and that the college admission part wasn’t given the skewering it deserves. Although Princeton does get some gentle pokes (when HBG brings the genius Jeremiah to his alumni interview, he turns from the unctuous lock-jawed oarsman, class of ’81, whispering, “Prick”) there’s really not much to unsettle you about the irrational idolatry surrounding “Ivy League” schools.

Curiously, Portia’s may or may-not be autodidact son who attends this groovy New Hampshire school has a history of doing terribly in rigid academic environments. His grades are terrible in traditional school, and he’s touted by HBG as a genuine intellectual who goes his own way. So why, one wonders, would this young man want to go to Princeton, land of the uber-traditional, the smug, and the self-satisfied? Where once can’t walk across campus without being assaulted by a goddamned a capella group singing dear old Princeton songs? Makes no sense. The boy should be looking at Hampshire, Reed, Pitzer, or Oberlin, not Princeton. (The film provides an impetus for Old Nassau, but not a reason per se.)

Lily Tomlin provides some great grit and muscle as Portia’s mother, a veteran of the feminist movement who’s disappointed in Portia’s accommodation to the system. She has genuine depth in some of her scenes, yet they seem to get cut just before something real is about to happen. And it’s a thrill of sorts to see Tomlin as Fey’s mother, making plain her place in the lineage of terrific comedic actresses.

Crabby’s favorite moment in “Admission” occurs when Portia first visits the groovy school. As she begins her by-now canned speech about “The Secret of Getting Into Princeton”, she’s interrupted by the kids, who ask rude questions like, “Isn’t attending Princeton just accommodating yourself to a heterosexist and hegemonic system that merely perpetuates class inequality?” and other stingers. (Crabby paraphrases.) It pierces Portia’s facade a little and almost makes her think, but there’s no real change here. (“The Secret,” of course, is that there is no secret to getting in. As Portia tells the aspiring Tigers, “If Princeton is the right place for you, you’ll be here.” It’s a kind of Zen koan that she knows doesn’t make sense but there’s no other way to say “You’re almost all going to be somewhere else next fall.”)

Everything else aside, a few major aspects of Admission bothered Crabby. First, it has Portia traveling to visit high schools and buried in folder reading at the same time. Anyone in college admission knows this is a physical, nay, metaphysical, impossibility. High school visits occur in late summer and early fall; folder reading, whether Early Decision or Regular Decision, happens in the winter. One holes up in one’s office or den or panic room with dozens of applications and reads until one’s eyes bleed and the Jim Beam bottle can play a low A-flat. This happens day after day for weeks, and one must keep up so everything is finished in time to meet as a committee. The weather outside in New Jersey at this time is dreary and cold (as it is in the novel), while in the film it’s always a crisp fall-ish day.

The scenes of the committee meeting were decent shorthand for what can go on, especially when admission officers give impassioned speeches on behalf of their favorite candidates. Their meeting room was decorated in the height of genteel taste, and perhaps the Princeton committee does in fact use china teacups and drink Perrier during their deliberations. But Crabby believes that no one can properly represent the long, long hours of debate, the fetid odor of stale donuts and coffee breath, and the final slog through the last of the folders in a damp, crowded room that has been inhabited non-stop for three weeks by semi-bathed yet well-meaning humans. That, he suggests, is much closer to reality.

There’s a scene from “City Slickers” where Portia has to help HBG and her maybe-son help a cow give birth (that’s what people do at groovy schools in the outback), and one can tell that none of the actors are really buying it. They’re all thinking, “Isn’t this the scene from ‘City Slickers’?” Jeremiah valiantly pulls on a rope that’s supposed to be the cow’s tail but he seems clearly to be thinking about Princeton. HBG gets to shower next to Portia in the next scene and say the word “placenta” but it doesn’t apply retroactively.

Finally, “Admission” takes a weird detour into science fiction by having its characters conquer space and time. Although Princeton is in mid-New Jersey and the groovy school is in GPS-less New Hampshire (there’s even a closeup of Portia’s GPS device giving up), everyone seems to be able to get from one place to the other in minutes. People stay overnight in the Granite State and are back at work in Nassau Hall bright and early the next morning. So sue Crabby for being a nitpicker; it throws him off to think people may be doing warp speed in a 55-MPH zone.

When all is said and done, Admission is a harmless entertainment that doesn’t depend on crotch-kicks or humiliation for its laughs. Nothing explodes, the characters are literate, vulgarity is not disguised as humor, the settings are lovely, and Tina Fey shows the promise of greater depth to come. Get her a Spencer Tracy for her next film and let’s see the sparks fly.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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