Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features

It’s depressing to watch performers who’ve carved out their own distinctive niches try to broaden their appeal by doing the same damn thing as everyone else. Take Tina Fey in Admission, which could be her application to the school of mainstream rom-comedy. She plays Portia ­Nathan, a Princeton University admissions officer (for sixteen years) with a patronizing professor boyfriend (Michael Sheen) and an aversion to kids—several of whom are hauled in for the sole purpose of letting her be averse. In part because her job consists of rejecting exponentially more students than she admits, Portia has been able to keep life at bay, remaining brittle, judgmental, and emotionally insulated. This makes her ripe for breaking in—humanized—by a nonconformist do-gooder heartthrob (Paul Rudd). In other words, Fey has the ­Sandra Bullock role—exactly the kind of part that she has spent the last decade transcending. She’s not bad in it, though. She’s actually very good in the second half, when Karen Croner’s hitherto formulaic script begins to go in darker, less expected directions. But you’re still conscious that she’s wasting a good part of her brain.

That first half of Admission is a lot for an actress to overcome. It’s not just very bad, it’s very fast, as if someone had overwound the metronome. Fairly naturalistic lines are delivered at the pace of screwball zingers—which stubbornly refuse to zing. Portia is in a fierce competition with the even-more-driven Corinne (Gloria Reuben) to succeed the current dean of admissions (Wallace Shawn), which is why she ends up (highly improbably) at New Quest, a low-profile, agriculture-oriented New England alternative high school—she wants to show her boss that she can broaden the applicant pool. Teacher John Pressman (Rudd) thinks she should get to know a weird but brilliant student named Jeremiah (played by former medium teen idol Nat Wolff). He also thinks she should get to know him. He’s smitten from the get-go.

Rudd is one of the movie’s biggest problems, not because he’s so wrong but because he’s so right. Face it: Everybody doesn’t like someone, but nobody doesn’t like Paul Rudd. He could beat a puppy to death onscreen and you’d worry about the ill effects on him. In Admission, he’s an idealistic international humanitarian who has adopted a Ugandan orphan and spends his days teaching sustainable irrigation while stopping to deliver calves. And his family is rich—although his values are such that he distances himself from them. But he’s rich. And single. And not gay. And Paul Rudd. And he adores her. And Portia’s boyfriend has knocked up a colleague and moved out. And he’s Paul Rudd. The course of true love never did run this smooth.

When Portia is just uptight, a mass of nerves, Fey is fun enough but nothing special. But she and Admission take a great leap forward when Pressman informs Portia that Jeremiah might be the son she gave up for adoption in college. (This isn’t a spoiler—it’s in the previews.) Suddenly, Portia is at odds with herself, unable to reconcile her wild new emotions with her hard-won super-stable persona—and Fey is brilliant at showing what happens to single-minded people when forced to hold dual thoughts. She really comes into her own in the scenes between Portia and her mother (Lily Tomlin), a first-line feminist scholar who proudly discourages her from forming lasting relationships with men. This might seem like classic feminist-­backlash material if the actresses weren’t Fey and Tomlin, who carry the mantle of feminist self-respect in every gesture—and who also know that just because you’re an admirably strong woman doesn’t mean you can’t also be hilariously addled or plain bonkers.

It’s when Portia decides that her alleged son belongs at Princeton that she becomes most seriously bollixed up—and Admission raises creepy (and ever pertinent) questions about who gets into prestigious colleges and why. The process is so ugly that it’s surprising no one bothers to say that there are schools other than Princeton. Director Paul Weitz finally stops the metronome and lets the absurdity of the whole situation sink in (though not the pop songs sprinkled like MSG over everything, as if by a chef whose palate has been dulled by fast food). Atrocious spoiler alert: Fey and Rudd become a couple.

Directed by Paul Weitz.
Focus Features. PG-13.