An actress in her 30s — a woman, that is, still playing characters of babymaking age — may have it even tougher than actresses in their 40s and 50s. Unless she is exceedingly glamorous, à la Charlize Theron, she can all too easily get stranded in the land of mom roles: Hair twisted into a messy bun, she's perennially grabbing her purse to whisk the kids off to soccer or dance; meanwhile, the dog has grabbed the meat off the counter — again! That on-screen image is a cartoon distillation of the trade-offs women make in real life: These movie women are exhausted, but they're happy. As is often true in real life, children give movie moms a sense of meaning and purpose, and, most important, an easily discernible role to play.
Tina Fey's character in Paul Weitz's Admission doesn't have that easily defined role; this not-quite-a-comedy presents her childless state as almost a tragedy. Fey is a killer comic actress — she could probably start and stop a Rolex with nothing but brainwaves. But even though she brings much more to the role than the movie asks of her, Admission doesn't have the courage to suggest that a childless woman who's doing work she loves just may have it all — or at least her all.
Fey plays Princeton admissions officer Portia Nathan, a character who admittedly doesn't quite love her work, though she doesn't know that yet. Her job doesn't mean seeking out the most deserving students or even the best qualified; what's crucial is finding the right mix of pedigreed stock (to keep the Princeton brand valuable) and appealing mongrels with high SAT scores (presumably to meet quotas). She believes the gig is fulfilling her, but it's really just wearing her out. On top of that, she has a cozy but dull — and childless — life with her significant other, played by Michael Sheen, a whiskery, elfin academic who chuckles to himself as he reads the Canterbury Tales prologue aloud in bed, in Middle English no less. (Sheen is scarily good at this.)
What's missing from Portia's life? Might it be... a child? It doesn't help that her S.O. runs off with an icy Woolf scholar — she's regularly referred to as "that Woolf woman" — whom he's impregnated (with twins). But here's another thing that Portia doesn't know yet: That she might be mom material already. An old college classmate, John Pressman (Paul Rudd), the half-twinkly, half-insufferable principal of an alternative high school in the wilds of New Hampshire, has contacted her about one of his students, a weird but obviously brilliant kid named Jeremiah (played, with the right elixir of gawky charm, by Nat Wolff). Pressman believes Jeremiah might have a shot at Princeton. He also drops the bomb — and what follows constitutes a minor spoiler — that Jeremiah might be Portia's son, the now-teenage version of the baby she gave up some 16 years ago. Once she begins to see — or just imagine — herself in him, Portia begins pulling Ivy League strings for Jeremiah, beyond what she'd do for any other student.
It would be more than enough for Admission to tangle with the idea that this socially inept, economically disadvantaged, extraordinarily bright kid is just what the Princeton student body needs — and what the admissions system guarantees Princeton is unlikely to get.
The fact that Jeremiah may be Portia's flesh and blood is supposed to intensify the story's moral complications. But, really, what difference does it make? Wouldn't Admission be more potent if the heroine took action on behalf of a kid in need who wasn't her own? The movie flirts with the idea that Portia, simply by seeing a spark in him and fighting for his chance to get into a great school, has helped Jeremiah greatly by not being his mother. But it can't shake the idea that actual parenting is the nobler effort. A contrast is built in: Rudd's Pressman, a globe-trotting do-gooder, has adopted a kid from Africa and faces his own problems as he strives to be a good parent. Even progressive, globally conscious people buy into every old notion of family and child-rearing, chiefly that it automatically makes you a better person.
Admission does land a few punches: At one point Portia cannily plays the "sisterhood is powerful" card with a conniving, ambitious colleague (played, with gloriously sinister undertones, by Gloria Reuben); the idea, a subversive one, is that sisterhood is powerful, particularly when a sister has something to gain from it. Lily Tomlin and Wallace Shawn show up in amusing third-banana roles. And as shot by Declan Quinn, the picture is handsome-looking — Princetonian, even.
But Weitz, an openhearted director if not always a precise one, can't bring himself to whet the knives. Only Fey drills to the center of what Admission might have been — her performance has more layers of emotion than the picture does.
Great comic actresses — like Barbara Stanwyck or Barbra Streisand — can have a direct line to feelings we'd rather not air, or even acknowledge. Fey is on that track; her Portia is both maddening and deeply sympathetic — there's warmth behind her crispness, even if it's not the fresh-baked-cookie kind. If Admission were sharper, it could be the ultimate Mother's Day movie: A picture about a nonmother who cares deeply for the next generation, even when it hasn't sprung directly from her own womb.