Today's romantic comedies are neither particularly romantic nor particularly comic. They seem to exist solely to scold and punish women who want to be anything other than a wife and mother—think of films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement, Notting Hill, The Devil Wears Prada, 13 Going on 30, and the list goes on. There is something sad about seeing any marginally competent actress in such a vehicle—and something tragic when that woman is Tina Fey.
Fey carefully cultivated her post-Saturday Night Live fan base by perfecting the art of self-deprecation. But the sad sack, lovable loser Liz Lemon in 30 Rock is endearing because she is part of a broader cultural satire, one that includes targets other than the hopeless career woman whose success fails to compensate for her emptiness.
In Admission, Fey plays Portia Nathan, a gatekeeper at Princeton University who spends her days dully and unenthusiastically lecturing would-be collegians about the essentialness of being fresh and enthusiastic. Her office life consists of sucking up to the head of Admissions (Wallace Shawn) and competing with a hateful colleague (Gloria Reuben wasted in a thankless role). She hopes to be tapped to run the department she hates working in so very, very much.
But why complain about a miserable job when you have a thankless and loveless academic snob of a boyfriend who is more interested in reading Middle English aloud to himself and chuckling at jokes only he can understand than in asking you about your day? "Sometimes you make sacrifices for the person you've been living with for ten years," Portia says in listless defense of her domestic partner. When he inevitably dumps her for a smarter and prettier colleague, Portia runs to the closet to sob. We aren't exactly sure why. This guy is no catch. The film beats us, and her, over the head with the message that nothing she is fighting to hold onto is worth having.
Enter Paul Rudd as John Pressman, graduate of a different Ivy League university. He has turned his back on financial and professional advancement in order to adopt a third world orphan and run a charter (or is it a magnet?) school where the curriculum apparently consists of preparing to dig ditches for the Peace Corps and learning how to parrot barbs denigrating corporate capitalism.
When Portia accepts an invitation to speak at John's school, the film threatens for the briefest instant to break out of formula and actually be about something. The kids poke the smug and complacent guardian of the keys to the entitlement kingdom with claims that Princeton is more corporation than public institution. Portia pushes back that their best liberal intentions will not be enough to change the world without training and accreditation. We are set up for a longer and more nuanced examination about the actual value of education with competing points of view that will be played out in a personal, narrative context.