There have been so many shrill, dumb, rinky-dink romantic comedies that it's easy to feel downright grateful when a smart, non-cheesy one comes along.
"Admission," a likable breezy campus movie directed by Paul Weitz ("About a Boy"), is blissfully non-insulting. The film is set at Princeton University, and Karen Croner's screenplay, which is based on Jean Hanff Korelitz's novel, crackles with the sound of very clever people trying to out-talk each other — an all too rare and happy thing to encounter in a Hollywood movie.
Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) is one of Princeton's elite team of admissions officers. She has the job of helping to choose which of the college's more than 26,000 yearly applicants, all of whom believe they deserve a place in the Princeton pantheon, are going to get in. (Approximate acceptance ratio: 1 in 26.)
In this academic seller's market, Portia holds the power. But so much is riding on her decisions that the pressure of sorting through all those high school seniors, with their hilariously overstuffed extracurricular résumés (and their even more obsessive parents), has strung her tight.
Fey's sweet-and-sour line readings at first sound like Liz Lemon redux, and I was glad for the moment when her 10-year relationship with a twit of an English professor (Michael Sheen, who also played one of Liz's disastrous boyfriends on "30 Rock") crashes and burns. The breakup unhinges Fey's character, and liberates her performance. From that point on, she's falling apart — or at least falling into a pit of desperation — and the neurotic crack-up looks good on her. It gives almost everything she does a shimmer of spontaneity.
John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a teacher at a woodsy alternative New Hampshire high school called New Quest, is Portia's opposite: a do-gooding globe-trotter who believes in the kind of excellence that can't always be measured by grades or ''official'' achievement.
He's pushing one of his students for admission to Princeton; the kid, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), is a prodigy with a troubled background, and John and Portia begin to tussle over his future from the moment they meet. John thinks that Jeremiah may be Portia's son, and the battle, as far as it goes, is lively.
But then, just about every character in "Admission" has an enjoyably feisty intellectual attitude, from the wily dean of admissions (Wallace Shawn, for once not used as a walking punchline, and all the better for it), to Portia's switchblade-sharp office rival (Gloria Reuben), to the precocious students at John's school who question Portia about Princeton being a ''corporation'' devoted to the status quo. That Portia answers their gripe every bit as tartly demonstrates that the movie holds its traditional-versus-free-thinking priorities in a nice yin-and-yang balance.
"Admission" has a promising first half, and the movie springs a real wild card in Lily Tomlin's brashly cutting and funny turn as Portia's mother, who wears her die-hard '70s feminism like a suit of burlap armor. Tomlin totally lets go. Her performance is an inspired satire of boomer self-righteousness and, at the same time, an unapologetic celebration of it.
Line by line, "Admission" is often fresh, yet it's also one of those films that are so diagrammed that a soggy predictability begins to settle in. For a while, Fey and Rudd spark each other, but the bantering flirtation loses heat. I think that's because Portia, as written, has a genuine edge to her, whereas Rudd, with his smiley sincerity, is stuck playing too nice and flawless a guy. John would have been a more logical romantic foil if he'd had a pesky, holier-than-thou side.
Even with this soft-boiled romance at its center, "Admission" really is a movie about whether Jeremiah, with his lowly grade-point average and astonishing AP test scores, is going to get into Princeton. And here, I'm afraid, the film's values are a bit out of whack. It makes us pine for that ideal of Ivy League opportunity, a dream that it hangs on the issue of Jeremiah's admission.
But what if he didn't get in? Surely he could go to some other good college. (He would seem perfect for Oberlin.) For a movie that's out to tweak the control-freak nature of the college-application process, "Admission," in the end, bows down far too slavishly to it. It confuses achievement with acceptance.