Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
USA, 2013. Focus Features, Depth of Field. Screenplay by Karen Croner, based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Cinematography by Declan Quinn. Produced by Kerry Kohansky-Roberts, Andrew Miano, Paul Weitz. Music by Stephen Trask. Production Design by Sarah Knowles. Costume Design by Aude Bronson-Howard. Film Editing by Joan Sobel.
A Princeton admissions officer (Tina Fey) has a whole world of problems dumped on her plate when she is advised that her school has slipped to #2 on the list of post-secondary institutions receiving interest from high school graduates. Her boss (Wallace Shawn) is retiring and putting her in direct competition with co-worker Gloria Reuben as his successor, but that’s not nearly as stressful as the fact that a unique applicant with the least amount of hope of getting into Princeton is possibly the grown version of the baby she gave up for adoption eighteen years earlier. This she learns when visiting an agrarian college run by a do-gooder professor (Paul Rudd) who has rejected the Princeton suit-and-tie life and wants to do as much as he can to get his most special students far ahead in the world.
Fey complicates things even further by dallying with the impossibly handsome instructor despite the fact that she has a thoroughly committed and completely dysfunctional relationship at home (with Michael Sheen, doing his fuddy-duddy routine marvelously). It all sounds like the set-up for a contrived comedy, but director Paul Weitz and screenwriter Karen Croner (working from the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz), are actually attempting to get a little deeper than just laughs. Most surprisingly, Weitz coaxes a richer and more varied performance from Fey than she has given before, surpassing her brilliantly-timed SNL-skit antics to create a three-dimensional character who never relies on ironic sass to get across to audiences.
Of course it’s terrific to see Fey pull off scenes where she has to get weepily emotional, but the veil is most thoroughly lifted when scenes allow room for 30 Rock-style self-mockery and she does not take advantage of them (and, as a result, the few times she does seem out of place). The film’s many tangents, also including a scene-stealing Lily Tomlin as Fey’s vocally feminist mother, end up bogging down the last third with far too much resolution, but overall it is a pleasant and satisfying experience that benefits from the chemistry between the leads and the pleasurable view into the world of academics.