Saturday, March 30, 2013

Admissions: Warning: spoilers and harsh critique

The supposedly 'feel-good' film Admissions (directed by Paul Weitz, with Tina Fey as Princeton admissions director Portia Nathan) seemed to me a gratuitous set of cruelties perpetrated on any woman unfortunate enough to be in camera's range. (Read on with spoilers...)

At least it's cruelty without prejudice. The rich, racist mother (Lisa Emery) of the male lead, John Pressman (Paul Rudd) gets only mildly dissed ("Love your jockey statues" is a sarcasm winged at her, but it probably has little effect since she's soused on gin). For equal opportunity, the intelligent but out-of-control left-wing girls at Paul Rudd's alternative private school are allowed to spout idiotic knee-jerk anti-establishment critiques of college, supposedly funny but in effect merely indications of their essential vapidness.

Lily Tomlin nearly saves the film with her portrayal of an idiosyncratic, male-free women's libber, Portia's mother. She has endured raising a bratty child alone, having chosen to have anonymous sex on a train some forty years ago. She has survived a double mastectomy five weeks earlier; she builds her own bicycle; she has two beautiful slim dogs who live off the land (rodents, and all). She's tough. But her feminist independence positions her as an easy target. Her positions of strength are systematically whittled down. Her dogs' lives are reformulated as cruelty to animals ('get some dogfood!' cries her daughter). Her resistance to men's hegemony is parodied as she pulls the trigger on Paul Rudd because she thinks he's going too far with her daughter ('No means No, asshole!'). She's not a legacy from the 70's, she's a gun-toting crazy, a mad witch living in her candy-less shack in the woods. Worse, she gets used by her daughter in the whole admissions plot, because a Russian professor of literature at Princeton loved seeing her lecture thirty years ago and wants to sleep with her. So the film destroys her independence from men, and, worse, makes her comment on it herself: "I can't believe my own daughter is pimping me," she says, as she walks into the painful garden party where she meets the prof.

Even Virginia Woolf gets hit. Fortunately, she doesn't appear in the film, being long dead. But there is a hermeneutic ghost of her, Helen (I think was her name), the "famous Woolf scholar" who has recently been snagged by Princeton ("I can't imagine how much we had to pay her to leave Cambridge"). Helen is virtually inarticulate (I can't remember her saying anything), the complete opposite of the wonderfully verbal Woolf. An obviously bright woman, she is reduced to a caricature of possessiveness, a harpy eating anyone who comes close to her spineless new husband (Portia's ex-boyfriend), father of the twins she is carrying. I shudder to imagine the marriage that Helen has chosen. And worse, her next book, or even her next lecture, about Woolf. If Helen doesn't suffer in it, Woolf surely will.

But most of the film's attacks are on Portia, the Tina Fey character. Her cluelessness is supposed to be funny, but it's the kind of cruel humor that went out of fashion with the Elizabethans. Oh, let's show some guy beating his wife; ha, ha! We watch her competently giving her admissions speech at prep school after prep school; and when she gets to the alternative school (complete with pregnant cows), where the students are encouraged to resist authority, it falls flat. She is shown to be completely taken by surprise when her best line ("take out your pencils to write this down: 'there is no secret to getting into Princeton'") is met with stony inaction. This smart, experienced admissions director has never met an alternative group of seniors before? Oh, gosh, there are kids who don't like the idea of an elite private university with Gothic buildings and eating clubs? I never realized that before.

Again and again, the film embarrasses Tina Fey. After a bad night, she is forced to emerge from her office with a rubber stamp inked on her cheek. Her boyfriend leaves her as they are hosting the English Department in their own home. The Russian prof breaks in on her as she sobs in the pantry. She bumbles her way into a frat party, idiotically pretending to look after her prospie. Her new boyfriend forces her to help birth a calf, then walks in on her as she's trying to shower off the slime. She's a fool, not a wit: the brilliance of Tina Fey is utterly wasted here, unable to pull herself out of embarrassment with intelligence. Outside the frat party, she whoops into the bushes, and is gratuitously comforted by her ex-boyfriend, who just happens to drive by. More frankly, two undergraduates walk by and comment simply, "Harsh!" It is harsh.

The cruel admissions process of a Princeton, and by association all higher education, seems to be the film's rationale for its own cruelty. Portia is one of the gatekeepers for higher education. The process is shown to be inexorably cruel, a kind of medieval Star Chamber of torture, conducted behind doors prominently marked "No Admission" (Ha, ha).  The once-funny joke by which prospies "appear" in the office when they are being discussed, and then drop through a trapdoor when they are denied, is repeated, at increasing tempos, until it loses all meaning or humor. Even the Whiffenpoofs are given cruelty: they inadvertently line up to sing in one of Princeton's Gothic arches, blocking everyone's way, including Portia's.

The ultimate cruelty inflicted on Portia is to show her as unreflectingly complicit in the cruelty of the elite admissions process. She burbles that she "loves her job" before everything goes wrong. She grossly and repeatedly fiddles the system to get her protege into the school. When she comes out on the other side of this job, apparently ready to start a new life, we can't believe in the happy ending: she's a part of this terrible culture.

As is the film. After the accept/deny letters have gone out, the phones start to ring in the admissions office, with expressions of happiness and of anger. The one we see Portia receive is so harsh that it summed up for me the whole situation of the film. An angry parent has just told her, "I hope you get rectal cancer." She smiles and says gleefully, "well that's one I've never heard before!" It seems to become the new motto of the Admissions Office. It could have been the tagline for this film.

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