If nothing else, Admission is the chance to see two of the best-liked funny people on the planet finally get together onscreen. Tina Fey and Paul Rudd are both at the center of the Venn Diagram that includes nearly all of the best comedy from the past 15 years, and playing your typical rom-com couple struggling to find their way to each other, the two bring an unusual level of charisma and chemistry. The amiable and genuinely enjoyable movie that surrounds them isn't always as confident as its leads, careening sometimes wildly from broad humor to rougher-edged realism, but it's always got a rock-solid core to return to, making you wish for annual Fey and Rudd rom-coms for the rest of time.
Playing Princeton admissions officer Portia Nathan (what a perfect name!), Fey is a few screwball levels removed from 30 Rock's Liz Lemon and a lot more serious. Caught up for 16 years in the stolid world of academia, Portia is blindsided both when her longtime boyfriend (Michael Sheen, in a fun 30 Rock reunion) leaves her for Virginia Woolf scholar (Sonya Walger) and when a much-anticipated promotion turns into a contest between her and a prim colleague (Gloria Reuben). Charged with expanding the school's reach among applicants, Portia pays a visit to a crunchy farm-based high school in New Hampshire, where founder John Pressman (Paul Rudd) wants her to pay particular attention to brilliant, self-taught Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), who just might be the son she gave up for adoption.
That's a pretty wild premise for this story, which is much more about small moments between people than big plots, and Admission often requires its characters to act in slightly unrealistic ways just for the sake of a setup a hair too big for this kind of film. Portia regularly drives between Princeton and John's school in New Hampshire, a six-hour trek treated like nothing. When Jeremiah comes to visit Princeton overnight, Portia's dormant motherly instincts kick in as she sneaks into an undergrad party to check up on him. In a scene when Jeremiah is supposed to show off a talent that will tip the scales for his Princeton admission, everyone talks it up in such vague terms that you're hip to the joke well before he's revealed to be a goofy ventriloquist.
But likability goes a long way, as it has in many films from director Paul Weitz, who seems more interested in crafting stories that take jagged, realistic turns that setting up the pieces for a perfectly timed comedy. Admission can be awkward or unsure like teenage genius Jeremiah, but it's as endearing and guileless as he is too, asking us to spend time with people generally trying to do right by each other. It's a movie that takes a do-gooder like John and points out how his desire to save the world is unfair to his adopted son (Travaris Spears). It's a movie that introduces us to Portia's kooky feminist mom (Lily Tomlin), acknowledges how growing up around mottoes like "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" might have screwed Portia up, but also refuses to demonize feminism. It's a movie that includes Wallace Shawn as a hard-nosed admissions boss-- that alone ought to be enough to recommend it.
In this weird post-30 Rock time, when we already miss Tina Fey's incredible TV show and are impatiently wondering when she'll write the next Mean Girls, it can be a little jarring to see such a comic genius take part in a movie this low-key. But Fey shoulders the movie well, aided by the eternally charming Rudd and a surprisingly strong performance from Wolff, who made his name in TV's The Naked Brothers Band and crafts a teenage kid who's not crazy or damaged, just odd. Admission is pretty odd itself, but it's at least better at being a warm-hearted comedy than Jeremiah is at being a ventriloquist.