Admit One

20130324-090931.jpg3screamsMaybe it’s the advertising or maybe it’s Tina Fey’s brilliant work on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, but I expected Admission to be a zingy comedy of the screwball variety. It’s actually a charming and smart romantic comedy with several good laughs.

Tina Fey plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer from Princeton, where she passes judgment on the thousands of prospective students who clamor to be admitted, fending off bribes and pleas that fly at her as fast as ninja stars. Hers is a buttoned-down world that works by strict adherence to policy, to logic.

Enter the ubiquitous Paul Ruud as the passionate do-gooder who may have more than one reason for wanting a talented but troubled student to get into Princeton. The secret at the heart of this movie is another feature that makes Admission more than the usual light-hearted comedy. The key is to think of the various meanings of the movie’s title.

Ruud is reliably excellent playing off his patented mixture of charm, wit, and good looks. Tina Fey is good, too, though that crooked smile of hers, while fetching, always makes her look too aware that the camera’s on her, as if she’s about to say, “Come on, fellas! Turn that thing off!” Still, the script calls on her to give some tender and emotionally charged moments, which she rises to nicely.

One of those moments is with the excellent Lily Tomlin, playing her quirky mother but with more edge and depth than you might expect from the typical romantic comedy. It’s great to see her in such fine form.

In most movies like this, every loss a character suffers is countered with a win. Here, not so much. Novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz, screenwriter Karen Croner, and director Paul Weitz do a nice job of keeping the story from becoming too contrived and yet still allowing it to satisfy our hopes for the character.

Ordinarily, for me, “charming” would be the kiss of death for a movie. But what makes Admission better than most in the genre is that it plays out in the real world, where not everything gets tied up in the end with a lovely bow. It’s a world where loose ends prevail, a world where love may not conquer all, but maybe it conquers enough.

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snoOZe

Ozonesheet2screamsThe stars of Oz the Great and Powerful aren’t James Franco, Mila Kunis, or any of the other actors. They’re the digital effects people. The actors might as well be sock puppets, they’re so overshadowed by the digital scenery. Does it impress? At times, yes, but mostly  the movie throws a wall of color at you that swamps story, writing, acting, directing, and almost everything else. Less is more, movie-people.

I’m a James Franco fan, but he’s best as a mumbling, hunch-shouldered beat, not as a wholesome Disneyesque character (or an Oscar host). I mean, the broader he smiles, the more it looks as though he’s going to eat you. James, who’s making your career choices? If you’re not careful, you’ll end up like Nicholas Cage, the Vincent Price of our times.

Like most Hollywood movies these days, all the hard work here seems to have gone into the digital effects, not the casting, writing, acting, or directing. I mean, there are passages of dialogue so plain, I almost fell asleep, I, the guy who never sleeps at movies. Shouldn’t the writing be as exceptional as the special effects?

The best actor is Mila Kunis, whose character is written and played with a tasty ambiguity, adding an interesting reason for her character change. But otherwise the actors seem to play their parts with a wink and a nod, as if they don’t want us to think they actually take this stuff seriously. The result is something like middle-of-the-road fan fiction. We recognize the characters and the story but something seems to be missing (soul, art, nuance, etc).

Yes, those scary flying monkeys are back, though the digital monkeys are much less disturbing than the 1939 monkeys, who seemed to be no more than actual people in monkey suits, suspended on wires, and yet somehow they seemed all the more frightening despite–or because of–that. The Munchkins are back, too, but mostly as background. I’m disappointed there isn’t more music. Oz has always seemed to me to be a land of music, its residents breaking into song at the drop of a hat. The Munchkins start to sing at one point, but stop so quickly it seems as if the moviemakers are wagging a finger at us, telling us they’re not that kind of movie. They should be so lucky.

The story itself ties in nicely with the 1939 perennial that haunts our dreams, explaining how a Kansas huckster ends up as the leader of this mythical land. And the final battle is clever. Maybe the most interesting and disturbing visual is the China girl, a porcelain doll who’s been shattered by the witches’ soldiers and glued back together by the Wizard. She tinks with each step, and she’s covered with a fine mesh of hairline cracks. Creepy. Good creepy.

It’s a movie whose themes and dialogue are too pointed, its main theme being the need to choose between fame and virtue, between greatness and goodness. Oz, Oscar, goes from a blustering con man to a man who embraces his limitations, his mere humanness, and the need to put others before himself. It’s a hard-won lesson, but because Franco never seems to believe his own bluster–or to be very good at it–we never really believe he needed the transformation. The role should have gone to a Steve Carell or an Owen Wilson or a Will Ferrell, actors who can make it seem as though they believe in their own bluster. Franco is just too inward an actor to pull off a conniving con man. His face itself conveys thoughtfulness and self-doubt, not brash self-confidence.

I’m guessing here but I think people who like this movie may like it because of its connection to the great Judy Garland movie, not because in and of itself it’s any good.

In a tribute to the original, this movie starts out in black-and-white and in 4:3 aspect as we see Oz’s life in the carnival BT (Before Tornado). Then color seeps into the image and the image itself broadens into widescreen. Yet despite all the millions that must have gone into the Oz sequences, the sideshow world of the opening is the most inspired and engaging part of the movie. Oops! Another two hundred mil down the drain!