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.