Admission: Up for an Amoral Comedy Set in a World without Abortion?

Admission is a terrible movie from director Paul Weitz, who these days only makes terrible movies (Little Fockers, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant and American Dreamz are three of the worst movies of the last decade). Its plot is contrived and sitcom-y, its characters stale, its banter weak. But if you can make it all the way through (that’s a big if), you’ll discover that in addition to its other woes it’s ethically disturbing.

Tina Fey plays a Princeton admissions officer who, along with a handful of colleagues and her boss (Wallace Shawn), is responsible for giving a thumbs up or a thin envelope to tens of thousands of hopefuls, 90 percent of who won’t make it. To the extent there’s anything interesting about the film, which is based on a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz and written by Karen Croner, it’s the convincing insider stuff about how admissions officers do their work. According to this film, the “first reader” goes through the pile of applications, flags some for special consideration, then meets with the other officers in a conference room at which everyone argues over the relative merits of each candidate. (The movie completely ignores, of course, the most salient feature of college admissions offices, which is that they dramatically lower standards for designated victim groups, even if the students stamped as underprivileged actually grew up in a penthouse on Park Avenue.)

Portia (Fey) gets a call from an old Dartmouth classmate (Paul Rudd) who is now running one of those hands-on crunchy-granola “indie” schools that seem primarily interested in nurturing the students to deliver left-wing anti-capitalist rants on cue. John (Rudd) makes a plea for Princeton to give special consideration to a student called Jeremiah who doesn’t score well on tests but has constructed an amazing intellect on his own terms. Oh, and Jeremiah’s back story comes with an intriguing detail: Remember that time in college when you gave a kid up for adoption, John asks Portia? Well, Jeremiah is that boy. John knows this because his roommate supplied the car that took Portia to the hospital to deliver her child.

Not only is the setup a groaner (as are the tepid romance scenes between Rudd and Fey), but the movie is blithely oblivious of reality: the reason there are hardly any Jeremiahs is because smug upper-middle class women like Portia have, going back two generations, been treating unwanted fetuses as mere inconveniences to be excised and thrown away with the rest of the medical waste. For someone like Portia (or Tina Fey) to actually choose to go into hiding for several months, then undergo birth and give the child up for adoption, rather than taking the easy way out with an abortion, would be such a surprising (and brave, and honorable) choice that it seems almost beyond the ability of anyone in Hollywood to imagine such a character.

But here’s the thing: The movie doesn’t even deal with these issues. It pretends to be unaware that abortion has become simply a casual lifestyle choice. Where’s the scene where Portia says she finds all human life to be precious and that she couldn’t bear to make an innocent fetus pay for her poor judgment? There isn’t one. We receive no explanation of why Portia made the choice.

True, Portia has a shrewish mother (Lily Tomlin) who is a parody of a 1970s feminist harpy (she has a Bella Abzug tattoo on one arm, subscribes to the absurd catchphrase that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, and intentionally raised her daughter by herself after conceiving Portia by jumping a guy she barely knew on a train). The mom character (a useful reminder that Lily Tomlin is not, and never was, funny) presents an opportunity for some Family Ties style generation gap comedy between hippies and yuppies, but Portia isn’t presented as a conservative. (A right-winger on an Ivy League campus: There’s a comedy for you.) She simply comes across as a typical northeastern liberal.

Any doubts about whether the Fey character is motivated by a strong sense of moral duty or ethics is shattered later in the film: Without telling anyone about her blatant conflict of interest, she starts cheerleading for Jeremiah with the admissions committee, telling her colleagues to overlook his flaws because he’s simply a different kind of learner who would be an asset to Princeton. But if Jeremiah is uninterested in classrooms and tests, he wouldn’t be a good fit for Princeton in the first place. Portia is simply doing what all globally minded, caring, progressive citizens do when it comes to their kid getting into a prestigious school: trampling all ethical concerns in pursuit of the ultimate goal. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that if Jeremiah gets a place at Princeton, another, more-deserving kid whose mother isn’t pushing his application will not get that spot.

Admission, then, wants to be a cute comedy but it’s really pretty ugly. That’s a shame, because Fey is an appealing actress, and she showed on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock that she has a lot of imagination as a writer. It’s too bad she accepted the lead in this formulaic, witless exercise. The movie is so bad, even Sarah Palin is going to feel sorry for Tina.