By Rich Cline
We generally expect more wacky humour from Fey and Rudd than this comedy, which is packed with perhaps too-smart dialog and a lot of warm sentiment. It's an odd mix, looking for jokes in gender roles and higher education, while also finding dramatic and romantic moments along the way. But in the end, the engaging actors make it worth a look.
Fey plays Portia, an admissions officer at the prestigious Princeton University, who's in competition with her office rival (Reuben) for a big promotion as their boss (Shawn) gets ready to retire. Unhelpfully, Portia's long-term boyfriend (Sheen) chooses this moment to leave her. Diving into her job, she visits a progressive high school where the director John (Rudd) is trying a bit too hard to get her to consider unconventionally gifted student Jeremiah (Wolff) for admission to Princeton. Then John tells Portia that he thinks Jeremiah is the son she gave up for adoption 18 years earlier. Meanwhile, Portia's aggressive feminist mother (the superb Tomlin) brings up even more past issues she's never quite dealt with.
The way the screenplay piles all of this on Portia at the same time is more than a little contrived, but Fey juggles it effortlessly, throwing hilariously intelligent one-liners around even in the more intensely serious scenes. Opposite her, Rudd is more understated than usual, and also creates a strongly defined character as a rootless wanderer who just wants to help make the world a better place, but needs to pay more attention to his adopted Ugandan son (Spears). Yes, screenwriter Kroner throws in every variety of parent-child issues too.
Even though we never really doubt where the plot is heading, the film has an edgy observational approach that holds our interest. It often feels like it was written by Tomlin's character, a feisty woman who militantly refuses to follow the rules of a man's world. Director Weitz kind of undermines this with his gentle directing style, but the fact remains that this is not the kind of approach we usually get from male-focussed Hollywood. The jagged, brainy humour comes from characters we like even when they make the wrong decisions, which all of them do. And the actors are so good that they can avert the mawkishness with some well-timed wit.
Facts and Figures
In Theaters: Friday 22nd March 2013
Box Office Worldwide: $18M
Distributed by: Focus Features
Production compaines: Focus Features
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 38%
Fresh: 56 Rotten: 91
Cast & Crew
Starring: Tina Fey as Portia Nathan, Paul Rudd as John Pressman, Ann Harada as Mrs. Lafont, Ben Levin as Junior Lafont, Dan Levy as James, Maggie Keenan-Bolger as Girl on Tour, Gloria Reuben as Corinne, Wallace Shawn as Clearence, Elaine Kussack as Abby, Christopher Evan Welch as Brandt, Michael Genadry as Ben, Juliet Brett as Praying Applicant, John Brodsky as Smug Kid, Camille Branton as Gymnast, Sarita Choudhury as Rachel, Lily Tomlin as Susannah, Travaris Spears as Nelson, Nat Wolff as Jeremiah, Michael Sheen as Mark, Sonya Walger as Helen