Tina Fey plays a Dartmouth grad who becomes a Princeton admissions officer, so if you have no Ivy League sympathies then stay away. Promoted as a RomCom, this is actually a fairly serious meditation on who gets to determine who is “the best” in the winner-take-all culture of 21st Century America. Screenplay by Karen Croner (based on a Jean Hanff Korelitz novel). Not yet seen by Rich, but click HERE for my FF2 haiku.
In her new film Admission, Tina Fey plays “Portia Nathan,” a woman in her late 30s who is very set in her ways. Like Humpty Dumpty, Portia has built up quite a brittle shell over the years, and we all know from the film’s opening moments that it will totally shatter when Portia inevitably falls of her wall. So why watch? First because Tina Fey is such an attractive on screen presence, and second because there is a surprising amount to be learned if one just opens one’s mind a bit and starts thinking beyond the labels “ChickFlick” and “RomCom.”
In this case, Portia’s actual job is as important as her search for love (the “RomCom” part that co-stars Paul Rudd as a fellow Dartmouth College alum ) and the management of her interpersonal relationships (the “ChickFlick” part that co-stars Lily Tomlin as Portia’s mom and Nat Wolff as a student in whom Portia takes a special interest after he decides to apply to Princeton). Which isn’t to say that much of the film isn’t concerned with these matters, but just that pejorative labels don’t capture what’s really at stake for Portia or any of the other main characters in Admission either.
For many years now, Princeton University has been listed at the very top of widely-publicized lists of “America’s Top Colleges,” competing year after year with Harvard for Number One. (In their 2013 edition, the editors of U.S. News & World Report gave up, and called Harvard and Princeton “tied” at Number One, keeping Yale in its typical place at Number Three.) As a senior member of the team that staffs the Princeton University undergraduate admissions office, Portia Nathan is one of the people most responsible for determining the composition of each new incoming class.
Me, I wasn’t an Ivy League type. I guessed this about myself as a teenager, and I knew for sure when I chose to leave Harvard after one year and transfer to the University of Chicago (even though this act of assertion broke my mother’s heart). But suffice it to say I know many people who went the distance at Princeton, Harvard, Yale, etc, and watching Admission, I definitely felt like the little details of Portia’s work life were spot on.
When I got home, I read up on Jean Hanff Korelitz (author of the novel on which Karen Croner based her Admission screenplay), and sure enough, Jean Hanff Korelitz went to Dartmouth, married a Princeton professor, and spent years of her life working in the Princeton Admissions Office. Of course, she is now a mother, as well as a novelist, so I doubt Jean has Portia’s personality, but I am sure Portia has Jean’s wealth of first-hand experience.
Potential audience members might read all this and shrug, assuming it has no real relevance for them, but that’s wrong. Many important politicians, business leaders, and public figures are Princeton alumni (a list that was once all male but now includes First Lady Michelle Obama as well as Supreme Court Justices Kagan and Sotomayor). Princeton also has many faculty members (such as Federal Reserve Board Chair Ben Bernake and Nobel Prize-winning pundit Paul Krugman) who play an outsized role in our national discourse. So who gets into Princeton, and who those students meet once they arrive on campus, actually affects all of us.
The broader questions–who gets to decide who is “the best” and how does that designation help to determine one’s future–are actually very important questions in a winner-take-all culture that is increasingly dominated by an economic and cultural elite. Remember, some people no doubt started their lives as “1 Percenters” (George W. Bush for example), but others grew up to achieve “1 Percent” status at least in part because an insider like Portia went to bat for them when they were teenagers. (We will never know for sure, of course, but my guess is that formerly Middle Class kids like Jeff Bezos, Sheryl Sandberg, and Mark Zuckerberg all fall into this category.)
So I commend Karen Croner and director Paul Weitz for bringing all this into the multiplex. Admission is not a perfect film, but it’s no mere ChickFlick/RomCom either. See it for yourself and I think you will agree.
Photo Credit: David Lee © Focus Features
Please do not read on until after you have seen Admission.
Nat Wolff is perfectly cast as “Jeremiah,” the student in whom Portia takes a special interest after he decides to apply to Princeton. Looking him up on IMDb, I see that Nat Wolff played Catherine Keener’s son in Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, but he didn’t make much of an impression on me back then.
Now just slightly older, he is unforgettable in Admission, making it easy to believe that even a hard case like Portia would be totally won over by him. His goofy little ventriloquist act (with puppet Rene Descartes) is adorable, and–HERE COME THE SPOILER–he is so natural with Tina Fey that I wanted him to be her son just as much as she did!
Turns out that Nat Wolff is actually the son of Polly Draper who played the character “Ellyn Warren” way back when on the much-loved TV series thirtysomething. Aha! According to IMDb, Nat Wolff has three additional films scheduled for release in 2013, so keep an eye on this young man. Portia is right: he is a winner!