Available now on DVD, “Admission” is that increasingly rare bird, a quiet romantic comedy. Rated “PG-13,” for some mild profanity and suggestiveness, it gets its laughs from intelligent dialogue, rather than gross-out jokes. Stars Tina Fey and Paul Rudd and a strong supporting cast that includes Wallace Shawn and Lily Tomlin make us believe sufficiently in the reality of their sometimes offbeat characters without pushing it too hard — the kiss of death for comedy. Under the veteran direction of Paul Weitz, working with Karen Croner’s adaptation of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel, the movie follows the familiar arc of the genre but touches upon some serious issues.
Fey plays Portia Nathan, an assistant admissions director at Princeton whose pressure-filled job includes helping to sift through 26,241 candidates for a freshman class of 1,308. Her boss (Shawn) has seen his institution plummet to number two in the U.S. News and World Report ratings, and he is bent on getting back on top before he retires. He tells Portia and office rival Corinne (Gloria Reuben) that one of them will succeed him, ratcheting up the pressure on Portia that much further.
On the home front, things aren’t going much better. Her live-in male friend, English professor and pretentious twit Mark (Michael Sheen), suddenly announces that he has impregnated a colleague and is leaving Portia. Oh, and she gets this news shortly after being told, on a New Hampshire recruiting trip, that one of the applicants may well be the son that she gave up for adoption when she was in college.
That last bit of unsettling news is delivered by the boy’s teacher, John Pressman (Rudd), a classmate of Portia’s at Dartmouth who believes he has sussed out that his student, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) is Portia’s child. Fortunately for his admission prospects, the kid is brilliant; unfortunately, his academic record is lousy. Her maternal instincts awakened, Portia finds herself in an ethical bind. Given the resumes of the competition, Jeremiah doesn’t belong in the “Accept” stack of applications, however much academic promise he holds.
How she addresses that problem and, along the way, falls in love with the iconoclastic free spirit John, constitutes the film’s third act. The proceedings are enlivened by Portia’s run-ins with her own mother, aging feminist Susannah (Tomlin) and by director Weitz’s comic take on the savage competition for admission in the Ivy League. At the close, some truth-telling and new starts — voluntary and otherwise — keep the movie true to the comic form.
Given the current sophomoric level of what passes for film comedy anymore, “Admission” will not appeal to the usual target audience. There’s no nudity, the air is not filled with f-bombs, and the few student parties are tame affairs, indeed. But a slightly older generation might find this unassuming comedy endearingly old-fashioned.