I imagine it like this: Tina Fey, understandably exhausted after seven years of steering the boat on 30 Rock, the coolest, wittiest and funniest major network sitcom of the past decade, probably just wanted a paycheck that involved showing up for her call time, enjoying the company of co-star Paul Rudd and making no creative decisions beyond how to deliver her lines. This fantasy even has a fictional antecedent, the last act of the 30 Rock finale itself, where Liz Lemon finds herself in the future, show-running a middle-brow family sitcom developed by Kenneth the page and starring Tracy Jordan entourage wingman Grizz, the kind of show where people respond to doggie reaction shots and say, "Don't even go there."
So both Liz Lemon and Tina Fey got their wish. Except Liz's costs you nothing: the Grizz sitcom isn't real or asking for 100 minutes of your life. Fey's wish resulted in this movie, this dull, terrible, lifeless movie. The one where she talks to a cow.
From director Paul Weitz (who also directed the equally meandering but much, much smarter and funnier About a Boy), the plot involves Fey as a Princeton admissions officer who meets alternative school founder Rudd and Rudd's star pupil (Nat Wolff, The Naked Brothers Band), a self-taught genius with horrible transcripts and supernaturally perfect test scores. He's exactly the kind of wild card the Ivy League rejects over Natalie Portman and crew-rowing kids from prominent families, so Fey abandons her professional sense and goes full court press with the kid, falling in love with the genial, globe-trotting do-gooder Rudd in the process.
There's more: Fey's first-wave feminist mother (Lily Tomlin) shows up to make cutting remarks directed at her own daughter and then ignore her woman-centric principles the minute a Russian professor-stud arrives to give her good sex. Fey's female colleagues sabotage her professional and personal life because in a non-Fey-created universe there is no sisterhood. A feelings-wank subplot about a baby Fey gave up for adoption and her growing relationship with Rudd's own adopted son muddy it all up even more. In other words anyone who bought a ticket because they worship the ground Fey walks on will find themselves wondering if they'll be allowed to sneak out without her somehow catching them in a their first fan-based betrayal.
The worst part is that there's a smart, interesting movie lurking around the edges of this one, a film about relationships between iconoclastic mothers and the daughters they raise, about the efficacy of getting into the "right" college, about life paths forged by autodidacts and other people who learn for its own sake, about blended families and the limits of professional integrity. It's just that those ideas are abandoned in the search for a third act meltdown where everybody screams at each other for no good reason before reconciling and hugging it out. Retreating back into my imagination for a moment, I've decided that the other, better Admission should be written and directed by Amy Sherman Palladino (Gilmore Girls, Bunheads), a TV director who could easily turn in a visually similar sitcom-style feature film where nobody has to engage a cow for comedy. It should star Tina Fey, too, so she still gets her wish to just show up and act. When that comes to pass we can all forget this one ever happened.