“Admission,” the Movie, Hides Truths among its (Very Funny) Plot Twists

Barry Lenson

“Admission,” the new film that stars Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, is cute, perky, and funny – just the way a romantic comedy should be. But the movie also teaches some important lessons about getting into college.

The movie casts Tina Fey as Portia, a college admissions officer at Princeton. Paul Rudd plays a private-school teacher named John who just happens to have a student – who knew? – who could be the same boy who Portia put up for adoption years earlier, when she was a student too. Romance happens between Portia and John – who expected that? – and that pretty much drives the plot. There are sub-plots too. Fey is scrapping to get promoted to become the Director of Admissions at Princeton. John has an adopted son and Portia doesn’t quite know how to relate to him. She has a quirky mother. All those elements help puff the film up to feature length.

“Admission,” like many comedies, extracts humor from painful situations. In real life, kids who are desperate to get into college are not so funny. In this film, they are. In real life, parents who would do anything to give their kids an edge in college admissions are kind of sad. In this film, they are spoofable. Ditto for rich kids who are trying to buy their way in, kids who are trying to work an affirmative action strategy, and other familiar student types. Some of those realities are funny in real life, most aren’t.

But under all the spoofing and comic situations, there is something real about the film. It’s the fact that we have all come to accept dozens and dozens of absurd things about American higher education, as though they were normal and reasonable . . .

  • Standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT have been widely criticized for being unable to predict students’ success after they enter college. But more people are taking those tests than ever before. That’s absurd, but it’s not funny.
  • U.S. News still publishes its annual college rankings, which just about everybody realizes are inaccurate and of very little use to students who are applying to college. But U.S. News isn’t going to stop publishing its college rankings. That also is absurd, but not funny.
  • Many colleges give preferential treatment to the children of alumni, especially alumni who donate a lot of money. That’s unfair, but the practice isn’t going away. If you’re not the child of a wealthy alum, it’s infuriating.

I could go on listing absurd things about colleges, college admissions, and American higher education in general. There is certainly enough material there for the makers of “Admission” to write and produce one more movie, and maybe more. They should, because the film is so enjoyable – and because it teaches real lessons about the absurdities of college admissions in America today.

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