Director: Paul Weitz
Starring: Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Nat Wolff, Lily Tomlin, Wallace Shawn, Gloria Reuben
Review: 2.5 stars (of five)

Admission has a strong cast and the admirable goal of making an adult movie about adult things, rather than a frat-level comedy about gross-out sight gags and characters distorted beyond human recognizability. It also deserves points for not being just another romantic comedy, in which fulfillment begins and ends with overcoming ludicrous obstacles to find completion in another.

But on the downside, the film’s script is painfully contrived, relying on a fantastic swirl of coincidence around Paul Rudd to make the story happen. Tina Fey is an admissions officer at Princeton who is shaken out of an unsatisfying life when she is moved to help a teenage boy’s longshot application to the university—and learns that the boy may be the child she gave up for adoption nearly 20 years ago. To set Fey on this journey, the film demands that we accept: Paul Rudd is the boy’s teacher, and believes in the kid. Upon on learning that the boy is adopted, and born on Valentine’s Day, he remembers that back in college, a girl he knew had described taking her roommate (whom Rudd never met) to give birth, and give up the baby, on Valentine’s Day. Rudd obtains Fey’s name somehow, tracks her down at Princeton (in the perfect position to help the troubled boy who must be her son) and engineers a reunion. That’s a lot of coincidence to swallow.

We first meet Fey in a loveless cohabitation in which the seeds of breakup-by-infidelity are clumsily planted for the viewer. At first it seems that the theme of the film will be Fey coming alive—she steadily sheds, or loses, all that is false or passionless in her detached, judgmental world. Eventually, after some decent misdirection, it becomes clear that the film is about her reconnecting with the idea of motherhood, or else, through that, the idea of being truly close and committed to someone. The film is carefully structured to reinforce the theme, wrapping Fey’s journey in numerous examples of well-meaning parental failures. But thematic unity and a strong cast never completely overcome the central plot contrivance, an uneven comedic tone and lackluster direction.

Speaking of the cast: Tina Fey is charming, vulnerable and disheveled as always, while Paul Rudd delivers a better, less-squishy version of his off-kilter, beta-male persona. Add the wonderful Lily Tomlin and, in a small role, Wallace Shawn, and you’ve got some serious, if understated power. On top of which, Nat Wolff as the teenager who may be Fey’s son handles does some really nice work.

I want to like this movie, and I do, on certain levels. It has a female lead (and even passes Bechdel), it has interesting themes, it wants to be both funny and grown up. But it doesn’t gel here. I wish it did, because we need studios taking chances on more films like this.