If it takes three instances to make a trend, then Admission, the romantic comedy starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd that opened this weekend, makes it official: Fey may take on a great many subjects in her movies and television work, but her great emerging theme is what happens when professional women in their late thirties are confronted with their own maternal urges. Admission, which flips the script on efforts concerned with fertility like Baby Mama and 30 Rock, could have been a fresh take for Fey, a look at a character who genuinely doesn’t want to have children. But unfortunately, it’s her weakest stab at the subject yet, a movie that’s unwilling to grapple with the reasons other than simply being busy that a woman might have put off childbearing — or why a woman might not want children at all.
In Admission, unlike her previous characters, who have had trouble conceiving, Portia Nathan, Fey’s rigid Princeton admissions officer character, got pregnant in college. Rather than raise the child, Portia gave up the baby for adoption, and buried all thoughts of having a family so deep that they don’t resurface until 16 years later, when they’re forcibly unearthed by a classmate, John Pressman (Paul Rudd), who believes one of the students at the alternative school that he runs is Portia’s son. What follows is Portia’s quest to get the boy, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) into Princeton, hoping that his love of learning and exceptionally high test scores will offset his extremely poor grades and lack of activities.
But while all of her efforts, including getting Jeremiah a chance to stay on campus, setting up an interview with an eccentric professor of philosophy, and trying to juice his ventriloquism hobby into a legitimate side pursuit, are mildly amusing, they also serve to allow Admission to avoid larger, and much more interesting, questions. We learn that Portia’s college boyfriend broke up with her before she found out she was pregnant, but the movie never asks whether she would have kept her child had they stayed together. When, before Portia meets Jeremiah, her long-term boyfriend Mark (Michael Sheen, who played one of Liz Lemon’s most irritating boyfriends on 30 Rock), an English professor, leaves her for a Virginia Woolf scholar he’s gotten pregnant with twins, Admission focuses more on the fact that the other woman is more glamorous than Portia, rather than interrogating the idea that Portia’s stated lack of interest in children might have made her less desirable to a man who feels the pull of a more conventional family structure, even though he hates kids. And while Portia clearly feels that she didn’t do right by Jeremiah, Admission never makes remotely clear what, other than getting him into Princeton, she wants to do with her adopted son. Does she want to support him financially? Have a friendship with him? Of course the discovery of a specific child raises specific questions, but Admission spends more time poking fun at Portia’s fiercely feminist mother Susannah (Lily Tomlin) than it does at actually exploring what Portia would do differently in raising her own child, or why she might genuinely not have wanted children at all, given her upbringing. And the movie never even really resolves the question of whether Portia doesn’t want to be a parent, or whether the trauma of her unwanted pregnancy caused her to bury her maternal urges, preferring instead to throw in a silly montage in place of character development.This is disappointingly timid territory given how spiky Fey’s efforts in this terrain have been in the past. Baby Mama, Fey’s 2008 collaboration with close friend Amy Poehler, put Fey in a different circumstance: discovering relatively late in her potential child-bearing years that she has little chance of getting pregnant, Kate (Fey) decides to hire a surrogate named Angie (Poehler). Where Admission sidestepped the questions of whether Portia actually wants to be a mother, what kind of mother she wants to be, or even if she can or wants to get pregnant again, Baby Mama foregrounds those questions. Baby Mama may have taken up the stock character of a career woman who waited too long to get pregnant, but at least it did so because the movie had actual questions to pose about what that experience is like, and what it means to find out in an age of seemingly unbridled reproductive options that your body is against you, adoption is not as easy as it’s made to seem, and surrogacy binds you in a relationship that can be much more complex than marriage.
The movie made too much of cartoonish class differences between Kate and Angie, but it made clear that even if surrogacy is well-compensated, there’s no way to eliminate the emotional labor that a surrogate is doing in carrying a child she won’t get to parent, or to resolve the fact that no matter how involved she is, the person paying a surrogate isn’t actually having the experience of being pregnant. When it turned out Angie was deceiving Kate about having become pregnant, and then realized she was pregnant with her own child by her boyfriend, the hurt and anger between the two women, even in a comedy, felt painful. The gap between Kate’s control of her work life and her inability to control the process of having a child was more of a theme than Admission ever really pulls together.
And 30 Rock, of course, dared to be weirder than either of these two movies. Liz Lemon’s disastrous, improvisational attempts to impress an adoption agent first made her realize that she might not be entirely ready to raise a child alone — it’s one thing to fake a nursery on the set of a late-night television show, another to find time for a baby for real. And when she did find a partner in the form of Criss Chros, the show tested their commitment to each other repeatedly: some couples, it turns out, need to tell each other they love each other Star Wars-style, renovate an apartment together, and promise to go to prison for each other before they’re sure they’re ready to make the leap.
When Criss and Liz decided they were ready to try to conceive, 30 Rock didn’t waver in its commitment to their specific weirdness — or the specificity of their happy ending. Liz’s general lack of interest in sex, rather than a trick of biology, made it difficult for the two of them to get pregnant, unlike in Baby Mama where Kate ended up pregnant against one-in-a-million-odds that a fertilized egg could implant successfully. The show tackled the fact that it’s easier for married couples to get approved to adopt. And when Criss and Liz finally got married at City Hall to improve their chances of finding a suitable child, 30 Rock gave them an ending that both illustrated some of the unique real-life challenges of the adoption process and produced the perfect family for these eccentric sitcom characters: Liz and Criss ended up adopting grade-school-aged mixed-race, mixed-gender twins, children who were considered less desirable to other couples, but who give Liz a chance to keep caring for the kind of family that she ran on the set of The Girlie Show, even after her program’s cancellation.
Admission could have been a fascinating break from Fey’s work on motherhood if Portia had actually grappled with her feelings about deciding not to be a mother, or if she ended up reaffirming the decision she made in college. But instead it ends up pulling a bait-and-switch that puts off Portia’s feelings yet again, just as it did for the 117 minutes that preceded the ending. If Fey’s going to spend so much of her career on questions of delayed parenthood, a topic that can invite concern-trolling of women more than thoughtful discussions about life choices, I’d hope that she’d pick projects where her characters actually interrogate their feelings, even if they can’t resolve them. And I’d love to see her play a character for whom a happy ending doesn’t involve kids at all.