Tina Fey is a smart, funny and vivacious actress, but she's admittedly at her best when paired with a more manic co-star who brings her relative passivity into sharper focus (think Amy Poehler in Baby Mama or Steve Carell in Date Night). Paul Rudd is a charming, likable and slyly amusing actor, but he's admittedly at his best when paired with a more manic co-star who likewise brings his relative passivity into sharper focus (think Leslie Mann in Knocked Up or Jason Segel in I Love You, Man). So while the idea of teaming Fey and Rudd in a major motion picture sounds like a feasible one, the reality is that all this low-simmer niceness results in a movie that has absolutely no wit, bite or - most shockingly - moments of hilarity.
It's not really the faults of the two leads, who do what they can with the feeblest of characters. Fey stars as Portia Nathan, a Princeton admissions officer fiercely devoted to her job. But the revelation that the prestigious university has fallen to - shudder - number 2 on US News & World Report's annual list of the nation's best colleges has left the institution in shock, and this coupled with the announcement by her retiring boss (Wallace Shawn) that he's seeking a worthy replacement forces Portia to think outside the box.
Having been approached by John Pressman (Rudd) to come check out the alternative, go-green high school that he runs in the middle of nowhere, she accepts the invitation and is soon introduced to Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), an atypical student who John insists would be a perfect candidate for Princeton. Portia isn't wholly convinced until John drops the bombshell: Jeremiah is most likely the son Portia gave up for adoption nearly two decades earlier. Now charged with maternal pride as well as faith in her own awesome genes, she does whatever she can to ensure that Jeremiah makes it into Princeton.
Using Jean Hanff Korelitz's book as a blueprint, Karen Croner cobbles together a script that bungles many important ingredients, starting with the crucial fact that we are never convinced that Jeremiah and Princeton would be a mutually beneficial match. The characters of Portia and John are problematic as well. Some of Portia's questionable actions are never challenged by the filmmakers and make her less attractive than doubtless intended; Rudd's part, meanwhile, is more of a supporting one than a co-starring one, and he isn't given enough time to come off as much more than a smug, self-satisfied liberal who, depending on your inclination, should either be slapped or prepped for canonization.
As Portia's longtime companion who abandons her for another woman, Michael Sheen provides a fine case study of dishonor among the intelligentsia, and it's nice to see Shawn again gracing the halls of academia (he's played educators on numerous occasions, most memorably in Clueless). Top acting honors, however, go to Lily Tomlin as Portia's mother Susannah, a feminist who once wrote a book titled The Masculine Myth, sports a Bella Abzug tattoo and - a nice, subtle touch - has two dogs named Betty and Gloria. Like Portia - let's face it, like practically all women in cinema - Susannah can't be completely happy in her independence or her career, ultimately needing a man (never another woman, of course) to share her bed. Nevertheless, Tomlin is excellent, providing more intensity than the role - and the movie surrounding it - deserves.