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Originally published March 21, 2013 at 8:06 AM | Page modified March 21, 2013 at 8:05 AM

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‘Admission’: Faintly comedic drama earns a passing grade

A review of the faintly comedic Tina Fey/Paul Rudd movie, “Admission.”

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 2.5 stars

‘Admission,’ with Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Michael Sheen, Wallace Shawn, Nat Wolff, Gloria Reuben, Lily Tomlin. Directed by Paul Weitz, from a screenplay by Karen Croner, based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz. 110 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language and some sexual material. Several theaters.

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Sometimes, you can see exactly where a movie loses its way, and in “Admission” it’s when the cow gives birth. This is not a metaphor, but an actual cow giving birth (well, probably not really, but close enough for the movies) while our fumbling main characters adorably get all slimy and grubby and caught up in the miraculous process of it all, and then cutely take adjoining showers. Sounds like a typical goofy romantic comedy scene, right? Except that “Admission” is not a goofy romantic comedy — really, it’s barely a comedy at all — and the scene seems to have been spliced in from a different movie.

Laboring cows and bodily fluids aside, “Admission” is an often pleasant, faintly comedic drama that too often struggles to find its tone. Based, fairly loosely, on the 2009 novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, it’s the story of Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), an admissions officer at Princeton University and a precisely controlled woman whose life at first seems perfectly in order. But Portia is soon rattled by a handsome teacher named John (Paul Rudd) at an experimental high school she visits, by the sudden departure of her longtime boyfriend (Michael Sheen), by her troubled relationship with her free-spirited mother (Lily Tomlin) and by the possibility that Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), a quirky, bright teenager at the school, might be the child she secretly placed for adoption 18 years ago.

This is a lot of plot, sandwiched into the movie in a way that doesn’t always make much sense. And while Fey is charming in the movie’s lighter moments (attempting romantic banter with John, she tells him “You have a very nice nose ... in ... your face,” which is very Liz Lemon), she’s still more comedian than actor, and struggles a bit with some of the more dramatic scenes. (Speaking of Liz Lemon, “30 Rock” fans will have a hard time watching Fey and Sheen without thinking of the ill-fated Wesley Snipes, particularly in one scene where he rides up on a bike.) Rudd is likable as always, despite playing a character whose motivations are murky; Tomlin steals the movie as Portia’s fiercely independent single parent.

Director Paul Weitz finds some inventive moments — I liked how, during an admissions-committee meeting, kids being considered magically appeared in the room, only to whoosh through a trapdoor when rejected. But ultimately, those lured in by the jaunty trailer and the cast of skilled comedians will be disappointed, as will those who loved the book. There’s certainly a wickedly funny movie to be made on the topic of college admissions, and a potentially poignant drama about a woman unexpectedly reunited with her birth son, and a theoretically adorable rom-com starring Fey and Rudd — but, by trying to be all three movies, “Admission” doesn’t quite pull off any of them.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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