Films like this comedy have a guaranteed opening weekend audience just because a big TV star has the lead role and is all over the poster. That would be “30 Rock’s” Tina Fey. Those folks probably won’t be disappointed in this lightweight film, even though Fey plays it kinda bland, as is called for her character.
But fans on the novel it’s based on are going to have some problems, in that so many of the story’s elements have been changed beyond recognition.
The basic plot is about Princeton admissions officer Portia Nathan (Fey) having some difficulties concerning Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), a bright outsider sort of high schooler who’s applying there. There’s also John Pressman (Paul Rudd), who runs the developmental high school that Jeremiah goes to. And for any feminists out there, don’t worry, Portia’s mom, Susannah (Lily Tomlin), has some screen time. Book and film are similar on those points.
But changes in structure and plot development and message and eventual outcome are likely going to outrage certain readers.
Of course there’s the argument that the book is the book, and the movie is the movie, and I am one book- and movie-lover that accepts that. But sorry, even though this still remains a study of parent-child relationships, the tampering committed in adapting it goes far beyond anything that’s called for.
Too bad that’s not the only problem. The film stands on its own, but it doesn’t stand very tall.
Both Fey and Rudd – thank goodness they’re not portraying opposites who attract – really underplay their roles. Rudd is usually good at this kind of thing, letting a mischievous glance reveal what he’s planning to do, or putting on a blank expression that lets you feel his character’s exasperation. But this time he comes across as a shy dullard, a guy who wants to do the right thing – help get this kid into college – but doesn’t know where to begin. Fey appears to be the victim of a director who’s told her to hold back, until it’s time to unleash her inner self, which she gets to do a couple of times in what amounts to nothing more than an emotional catfight with a coworker. You want to feel for these two nice, caring people, but it’s difficult when they’re so uninteresting.
On the positive side, there’s Lily Tomlin, who absolutely lights up the screen as the feisty Susannah, a single mom and an independent spirit who was, no doubt, up in the front lines when the women’s movement got its start, and has never backed off. One of the film’s best – and most meaningful – sight gags is the tattoo of Bella Abzug on her shoulder. (Those of you too young to get it should Google her.)
Page 2 of 2 - Director Paul Weitz is a little too loose with the film’s moods, as they change, from way up to way down, too quickly. But neither he nor scriptwriter Karen Croner can be blamed for the hard-to-take, not-very-believable ending. That problem rests solidly with novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz, and is the way she ended the book. Why couldn’t the filmmakers have changed that?
Ed Symkus covers movies for GateHouse Media.
Written by Karen Croner; directed by Paul Weitz
With Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin