Tina Fey and Paul Rudd seem perfect for each other. The characters they play in this movie are not as persuasive. Fey is so much better than the adorkable rom-com role assigned to her here and Rudd is capable of so much more than the earnest do-gooder relegated to him. But what really hurts this film is the senseless complications the characters have to try to navigate and the uncertain hold on developments that are are disorientingly off-key. You can see the studio’s lack of confidence in the movie in the bait-and-switch ad campaign. The commercials make it look like a standard romantic comedy (and it may have been re-edited to try to fit those rhythms), but the plot line about reuniting with a child put up for adoption feels awkward, cluttered, and intrusive.
Fey is Portia, a tightly-wrapped admissions officer at Princeton, always buried in orange file folders brimming with the hopes and dreams of 17-year-olds and their parents. They all have excellent grades, community service credentials, positions in student government, athletic achievements, and some sort of artistic streak. Portia knows how to maintain her composure even when confronted with prospects who are certain that asking just the right penetrating question of the student tour guide will somehow cause the (for the purposes of this film) toughest school in the country to get into to see them as the shining star of perfection their parents always told them they were. She is less composed when it comes to her own ambitions. The head of the office (Wallace Shawn) is retiring and Portia is competing with a colleague (“Lincoln’s” Gloria Reuben) who is much smoother at ingratiating herself at Portia’s expense.
Portia is constantly under assault from applicants, parents, and high school college counselors. Despite the avalanche of applications Princeton receives every year, she has to go out to high schools to encourage seniors to apply. Princeton is competitive, too. It wants to make sure that it gets to choose from the the most promising applicants. And it wants to keep its rejection ratio high so it will top the annual US News rankings. She gets a call from John Pressman (Rudd) the head of an alternative school. Like all the other high school administrators, he has a student he wants her to accept. Like many of them, he wants to make the case that the kid’s file does not reflect his true potential. But there is one more thing. John is sure, on the flimsiest of evidence, that an autodidactic polymath named Jeremiah (a likable Nat Wolff of “The Naked Brothers”) is the son Portia gave up for adoption. The one she never told anyone about. Jeremiah wants to go to Princeton and Portia’s vestigial maternal instinct jumps to life. All of a sudden, she finds herself on the other side of the admissions process.
And there’s a lot of other stuff happening with Portia’s professor boyfriend (Michael Sheen), her free-spirited mother (a mis-used Lily Tomlin), and John’s adopted son (Travaris Spears), and John’s parents. And most of these people at some point in the last third of the film do something so inexplicably inconsistent with what we know about them and what we want for them that it almost seems that we’ve wandered into a different movie.
It would be impossible for Fey and Rudd to be anything other than entertaining and highly watchable. But I hope their next time on screen does not test that proposition so insistently.
Parents should know that this movie includes references to infidelity and putting an out-of-wedlock infant up for adoption, drinking, and a non-explicit sexual situation.
Family discussion: How did Portia’s mother influence her ideas about parenting? How would you decide who to admit?
If you like this, try: “Clueless” and “Date Night”