Chuck Koplinski: More than meets the eye in 'Admission'; 'Croods' a knockout

Chuck Koplinski: More than meets the eye in 'Admission'; 'Croods' a knockout

About 15 minutes into Paul Weitz's fine new film "Admission," Princeton admissions officer Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) is put through the wringer by a group of exceptionally smart high schoolers who question the need for higher education and wonder why the esteemed institution she works for remains behind the times in its stance on certain social issues.

Though initially taken aback, she's able to field all of their questions, prompting teacher John Pressman (Paul Rudd) to say "Glad you can handle a curve."

Here's hoping that viewers will be able to do the same, as Focus Features is promoting the movie as a light-hearted, romantic romp, promising that its two appealing stars will engage in witty, antagonistic repartee and navigate a minefield of misunderstandings before ultimately falling in love.

While these things do occur, the script by Karen Croner, an adaptation of the Jean Hanff Korelitz novel, contains far more serious concerns as the film focuses on the nature of parenthood and all the pitfalls inherent to it, dealing with it in a lighthearted but honest manner.

As rigid as a dumbbell, Nathan adheres to rules and regulations to such an extent that she's boxed herself off emotionally. And while this approach serves her well professionally, it leads to more problems than she can handle personally as her relationship with her long-time partner Mark (Michael Sheen) implodes and there's a gulf between her and her mother (Lily Tomlin) that no amount of therapy can bridge.

But before she can build even higher walls around herself, Pressman drops a bomb on her. Seems he thinks that a brilliant young man at his alternative high school, Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff), who wants to attend Princeton, might be the son she gave up for adoption.

This revelation kick-starts the movie as it sends Nathan into a tailspin. She begins to act maternally while trying to adhere to the strict moral guidelines of her job. As you would expect, Fey is quite good in handling all of this, properly flummoxed as the precise world her character's created erodes before her eyes. At times cool and confident, at others awkward and clumsy, the actress invests herself fully, embracing her character's flaws and humanity, displaying them with a sincerity and vulnerability that make us love her.

The journey of self-discovery Nathan must take is rife with comic pitfalls, but it's the introspective moments, which Fey nails, that turn the film into something more than just a disposable farce.

If Fey has a match on screen in terms of likability as well as comedic skill, it's Rudd. His character is embroiled in a similar emotional journey. Father to an adopted son (Travaris Spears) and mentor to Jeremiah, Pressman has the best of intentions in mentoring these young men. However, his own unresolved issues with his mother continue to haunt him, something he fails to connect with how he goes about parenting.

Rudd's quite good at being earnest, and while his character makes some bad choices, the actor invests enough dignity in him that he never comes off as a fool.

As with most of the film, the ending does not play out as you would expect, which is refreshing. Those expecting a cute comedy are apt to be disappointed, but if you're willing to go into "Admission" knowing that there's just as much heart in its offbeat story as there is humor, you'll have seen a film that, while not groundbreaking, at least has the nerve to go against the norm.

'Admission' (3 stars out of 4)

Cast: Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, Michael Sheen, Wallace Shawn, Gloria Reuben, Sonya Walger, Nat Wolff, Travaris Spears and Tina Benko.

Directed by Paul Weitz; produced by Kerry Kohansky, Andrew Miano and Weitz; screenplay by Karen Croner (based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz).

A Focus Features release. 100 minutes. Rated PG-13 (language and some sexual material). At the AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

Change is good in "The Croods" (3 stars) While Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders' "The Croods" shows you can teach an old caveman new tricks, it also drives home the point that some things never change, namely that teenagers will rebel and that fathers have had a hard time letting go of their little girls.

Clever and at times a visual knockout, the film is quite smart in the way it combines modern social concerns with evolution theories and the notion that being adaptable is a quality as vital today as it was in prehistoric times.

You really can't blame the teenage cave-girl Eep (voice by Emma Stone) from wanting to break away from her close-knit family. Her overprotective dad Grug (Nicolas Cage) requires that they all sleep together, literally, in a tangle so he can keep track of everyone and he only lets them out of their tightly sealed cave every three days or so, when food runs out. What with neighbor families having been eaten by large werecats or all dying because of disease, you can understand where he's coming from.

Everything changes when Eep ventures out one night and meets Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a more evolved human who has good news and bad news. The good is that he's in possession of this nifty new thing called fire. The bad is that he lets the Croods know that the end of the world is coming and unlike our modern street-corner crackpots, he's right.

Yep, the climate is changing — landforms are shifting, the weather's in flux, the usual stuff — and when the Croods' cave is destroyed as a result, they're forced to venture forth with their new acquaintance.

The film kicks into high gear then as they leave their dark, dank valley and venture into a beautiful but dangerous paradise. The screen explodes with color as the palette of the entire movie changes and it's quite something to see. The new 3-D format is at its best in animated features, and "The Croods" is a perfect example. An early sequence in which a football game breaks out as the family attempts to steal a large egg and a later scene in which Guy distracts a flock of man-eating birds with a single torch are spectacular, vibrant examples.

The movie is at its funniest when it underscores the differences between the Neanderthal-like Croods and Guy, who's obviously one step above them on the evolutionary scale. But what's most surprising is the poignant turn the story takes as a noble sacrifice is made and all involved realize that while change is difficult, it's inevitable and being able to adapt is the difference between life and death.

Their journey runs a bit long, but all in all, while I would never want to eat with them, meeting the Croods was a far more pleasant experience than I expected.

"The Call" not worth taking (2 stars) If there's one thing I realized while watching Brad Anderson's "The Call," it's that a documentary on 911 call centers and the people who work there would probably make for a fascinating film. A look at the triumphs and tragedies they experience, the stress they deal with and how the system works would probably help the public appreciate a service we take for granted far too often.

It'd be far better than this turkey of a thriller, which though it contains some moments of genuine suspense, ultimately drowns in its own stupidity.

Lazy writing, wooden acting and unrealistic circumstances undermine this feature, while star Halle Berry shows once more that the quality of her performance depends largely on the strength of the director she's acting for. The actress is Jordan Turner, a 911 operator who's taken to training perspective dispatchers after a traumatic experience with a call she took from a young woman in danger ended badly. She's forced back into duty when a rookie dispatcher panics while taking a call from Casey (Abigail Breslin), a kidnap victim who finds herself locked in the trunk of a moving car.

The movie becomes a race against the clock as Turner attempts to gather and relay as much information as possible so that the police can find Casey before she meets a grisly end. The film is at its best as it runs through the various procedures these workers enact when a situation such as this falls in their laps. Equally tense and enlightening are the exchanges between Turner and Casey, as the former talks her through some common sense actions that will hopefully alert those around her of her plight.

But the film goes south, especially during its third act, when Richard D'Ovidio's script starts to throw one stupid circumstance after another at the viewer. A murder in Los Angeles in broad daylight goes unnoticed, and Turner goes from being smart and capable to suddenly being a reckless dullard just so the film can reach a decent running time. And while I liked the sharp-edged, female empowerment conclusion, the narrative path required to reach that point felt far too manipulative to be believed.

A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter at chucksmoviepicks. He can also be reached at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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