If you wondered when the post–“Saturday Night Live” curse, which has led to any number of rotten movies featuring former Not Ready for Prime Time Players, would hit the talented Tina Fey, that day has come.
In Fey's case, the curse comes in the form of “Admission,” which is both a comedy that isn’t funny and a love story that never sparks; its serious moments might have worked in a smarter movie, but here they represent only a jarring shift in tone.
Would that Fey had been as choosy and critical about the screenplay by Karen Croner (“One True Thing”) as her character is about personal essays attached to applications to Princeton University.
Portia Nathan (Fey) has spent years standing at the Ivy League college’s gates, seeking out the nation’s best and brightest high school students and ruthlessly culling the ones who don’t measure up. This school year promises to be a challenging one: not only is Portia’s boss (Wallace Shawn) retiring, leaving her to compete with office rival Corinne (Gloria Reuben) for a promotion, but Portia’s English professor boyfriend Mark (Michael Sheen) has also just dumped her for colleague Helen (Sonya Walger).
Adding to her complications is an encounter with an old classmate, John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a globe-trotting do-gooder whose current project is an alternative school in the wilds of New England. He gets her to do a school visit, mainly so she can meet Jeremiah (Nat Wolff of “The Naked Brothers Band”), an enthusiastic pupil who has blossomed from D-student to self-taught genius. John thinks Jeremiah would be perfect for Princeton; he also thinks that Jeremiah is the son that Portia put up for adoption when she was an undergrad.
As with “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” “Admission” offers situations that are ripe with comic potential and talented performers who are more than capable of bringing the funny, while offering very little in the way of laughs. We’re never made to care very much about Portia’s romantic or workplace problems -- whereas we absolutely cared about both in regards to Liz Lemon on “30 Rock” -- and while Rudd and Fey are eminently empathetic and charming performers, their romantic chemistry never clicks.
Also irritating is the weirdly misogynistic streak running through the film. Taylor Swift and Jezebel.com notwithstanding, Fey has earned a reputation as a smart and ferociously funny feminist, so it’s more than a little annoying that the female supporting characters are so lazily drawn: Portia’s mother Susannah (Lily Tomlin) is an old-school Women’s Libber with a Bella Abzug tattoo (and cats named for Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan), but she goes from firebrand to simpering ninny after just one night of passion with a studly Russian professor. The only other women of consequence are Corinne and Helen, both two-dimensional gorgons.
Director Paul Weitz, when collaborating with his brother Chris, showed a real deftness for witty adult comedy in films like “About a Boy” and “In Good Company,” but here the jokes tend to clang, and the dramatic bits -- particularly a rather hateful confrontation between Portia and Susannah -- come flying in out of nowhere.
Everyone involved in “Admission” has done far better work in the past and will, with any luck, succeed again in the future, so maybe “Denial” would have been a better title for a movie that’s going to be missing from a lot of résumés.