The great Gene Siskel used to say that his litmus test for any movie was to ask himself if he’d be more interested in a documentary about the cast having lunch. I thought about that line a lot during Admission, which strands a roster of very funny people in a muted, pokey muddle of half-hearted dramedy.
Tina Fey clamps a lid on her frazzled Liz Lemon energy, struggling a bit here to play an uptight Princeton admissions officer thrown into a midlife crisis after her longtime live-in bedmate (Michael Sheen) takes off with the nation’s preeminent Virginia Woolf scholar. More psychic duress arrives on her doorstep when an obnoxious do-gooder from a rural alternative school (Paul Rudd) tells her that his latest prodigy just might be the son she put up for adoption 17 years ago.
Photographed in 50 shades of beige, Admission is the blandest movie I’ve seen in months. Adapted from a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, the movie putters along through awkward, ostensibly comedic situations without ever committing to actual jokes. Director Paul Weitz did a fine job walking the line between silliness and serious business in 2002’s About a Boy, but as he’s done nothing but junk since (cough, Little Fockers), I think we can all just write that one off as a fluke.
The morphine-drip pacing of the scenes makes Fey’s dizzy self-deprecation look more like depressive floundering, but at least she gets to play a character. Rudd is more plot device than person, cycling through whatever kind of guy the screenplay needs him to be at any particular moment. I worry that the movies still haven’t figured out what to do with Paul Rudd. He’s handsome in a genial way, but is capable of a harsh edge that’s always startling coming from that Everyman grin. Rudd could be the next Jack Lemmon if anybody still wrote roles like that.
Meandering about in such lackadaisical fashion that every one of the film’s 117 minutes is felt very deeply, Admission’s saving grace is a deft turn from Lily Tomlin as Fey’s militant feminist mom. The author of books like The Masculine Myth, she has a Bella Abzug tattoo on her arm and keeps a rifle in the house. Comedy goddesses Tomlin and Fey paying mother and daughter should be a slam dunk, but as it turns out, I’d rather be watching them have lunch.