Getting into Princeton University apparently depends on a good advocate in the Admission Office as much as a great academic record—although a spot on a sailing team doesn’t hurt. Unfortunately Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff), an unconventional student from an alternative high school located in the backwoods, has terrible grades, a blotched school record and, for all we know, an aversion to water.
Still his teacher, John Pressman (Paul Rudd), thinks this voracious reader and self-taught scientist might just flourish in Princeton’s academic environment if he can only get in. To help with the process, John makes a special call to the prestigious university and invites one of their employees to visit for a first hand look at his Quest program, that includes constructing water purification systems and playing midwife to a cow.
Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) gets the assignment.
For Portia, life is neat, tidy and nice. Her job serves her well. She peruses applications all day without ever having to interact with actual students. She reads poetry at night, lives with her boyfriend (Michael Sheen) who pats her on the head like a dog, and has a terrible relationship with her mother (Lily Tomlin). Her college recruitment speeches are as rote and rigid as she is. But things start to unravel when she steps into the dusty barn that houses the Quest classrooms.
Amazingly John finds Portia attractive, although it’s difficult to see why, other than her obvious influence in the admission’s process. She meanwhile seems content to slap a big red DENY stamp on anything that pushes her outside her comfort zone and real life does just that. But Portia is not the only character in this story that teeters on the edge of the extreme. The perspective student Jeremiah has a brilliant mind, but one has to wonder how well he would fare in a rigorous academic setting. John would rather traipse around the world with his adopted son (Travaris Spears) in tow than create the kind of stable childhood he was raised in. Portia’s free-spirited mother gladly abandons her parental role in favor of pursuing her own interests. And even Portia’s decade-long lover weasels out of their relationship in a most unmanly manner.
To be truthful, it’s hard to feel empathy for anyone in this story. And even the occasional laughs don’t make up for these namby-pamby characters that whine their way through the film. However ethical issues (along with a sexual expletive and other profanities) may be the film’s biggest problem after Portia blatantly breaks school protocol in favor of a student she suspects may be the baby she gave up for adoption when she herself was in college.
While these university officials make fun of hovering parents and their extreme efforts to get their children into Princeton, it’s hard to believe those endeavors aren’t necessary after seeing the shenanigans that happen behind the closed doors of this Admission office.