Tina Fey occupies the same airspace as Steve Carell and Paul Rudd — she’s an excellent actress who tends to make only decent movies. Mean Girls introduced us to her comforting screen presence, but ultimately it was more of a testament to her prowess as a writer than as an actor. And Date Night and Baby Mama elicited laughs, but lacked the staying power to be anything more than fun and forgettable films. Still, no matter how bare bones the role may be, Fey, like her contemporaries, possesses that special poise that makes it feel like she isn’t even acting. She doesn’t just hit her marks and spit her lines. She glides.

Fey’s deeper talent peeks its head out in Admission, in which she plays Portia Nathan, a Princeton University admissions officer whose job it is to sift through applications littered with 4.0’s and perfect AP scores and decide who she thinks is the perfect fit. During the admissions process, Nathan receives a call from John Pressman (Rudd), who runs an unorthodox high school where the students don't carry pens, but know how to milk a cow. Pressman believes he has, in his words, a prodigy on his hands with his student Jeremiah (Nat Wolff).

Early in Admission two things happen, one of which is interesting, and the other dreadfully cliché. First the good. Pressman believes that this brilliant student is Nathan’s son, who she gave up for adoption while she was in college. Watching this emotional transition unfold on screen provides some of the film's best moments. Nathan, who actively avoids college tour groups precisely because of the high-strung parents who pester her for secrets about how to get their child into Princeton, now finds herself inhabiting that very role. She becomes drawn to Jeremiah, and her maternal instincts kick in. But Jeremiah has a terrible transcript, and so the main source of conflict centers around whether Nathan will adhere to the strict ethical code of an admissions officer, or if she will bend the rules and manipulate her fellow steely staffers to get Jeremiah into the school.

Here comes the bad. Shortly after meeting, Nathan and Pressman kiss. Why, exactly, I’m not sure. It’s as if some studio head believed any movie with Tina Fey necessitated a Liz Lemon-esque pursuit of a man. But there’s enough going on with Nathan navigating the ethical boundaries of college admissions and unexpected parenthood that the love story doesn't just feel forced, it repeatedly disrupts the pace of the story. The movie spends too much time taking kiss breaks for this to be the crisp and engaging tale it was meant to be.

Admission tackles the college admissions process from a unique angle by taking us inside the head of the admissions officer, and by extension, a parent. It works because Fey displays her complete emotional register. She makes us care for her decision, for this child who we know so little about, and for her increasingly uncertain future as a parent and an admissions officer. At its heart, Admission wasn't supposed to be a formulaic romantic comedy. And sitting in the theater, it felt like Fey was the only one who knew it. The movie drags while she sprints ahead, and I just hope that sooner or later a project will come along that can keep up with her before she reaches the finish line.

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