There have been so many shrill, dumb romantic comedies that it's easy to feel grateful when a smart, non-cheesy one comes along. "Admission," a likeable, breezy campus comedy directed by Paul Weitz, is set at Princeton University, and it crackles with the sound of very clever people trying to out-talk each other.
Tina Fey plays Portia Nathan, one of Princeton's elite team of admissions officers. It's her job to help choose which of the college's 26,000 yearly applicants are going to get in. She has all 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, has strung her tight.
Early on, Portia's English-professor boyfriend leaves her, and the break-up unhinges Fey, and liberates her performance. For most of the movie, she's falling apart, and that gives everything she does a shimmer of spontaneity.
Paul Rudd plays Fey's opposite number, a teacher at an alternative high school 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, a prodigy with a troubled background. Complicating matters is the fact that the kid may be Portia's son.
Almost every character in "Admission" has an enjoyably feisty attitude, from the dean of admissions, played by Wallace Shawn, to Lily Tomlin in a brashly cutting and funny performance as Portia's mother, who wears her die-hard 1970s feminism like a suit of burlap armor.
"Admission" is often fresh, yet it's also one of those films that's so diagrammed, arc by arc and beat by beat, 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 has a genuine edge to her, whereas Rudd, with his smiley sincerity, is stuck playing too sweet and flawless a guy.
The movie also gets a bit too hung up on whether that kid is going to get into Princeton. For a movie that's out to tweak the control-freak nature of the college application process, "Admission," in the end, bows down a little too slavishly to it.