Movie Review ~ Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A journalist recounts her wartime coverage in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Stars: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton

Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: I believe we’ve reached a point in our culture where it seems downright unpatriotic not to like Tina Fey. There’s something about the funny lady that just rubs us the right way, even if her style of comedy isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. A star on Saturday Night Live before launching a successful prime time television career writing/starring in 30 Rock and eventually making the transition to film, Fey relied on her charming inoffensiveness, quick wit, and pointed observations to carve out a niche for herself as a performer and successful awards show host. It seemed like there was nothing she couldn’t do…except drama.

Now I realize that 2014’s This is Where I Leave You had problems way more severe than Fey being miscast as the caustic sister to Jason Bateman’s harried brother. Still, there was something about how out of place she seemed that just cut deeper than that film’s total lack of drive or point. Wisely, Fey retreated back to her comfy comedic shores and scored in December in Sisters with her frequent co-star Amy Poehler. The first time I saw the preview for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot I got this terrible pit in my stomach that another dramatic debacle was on the horizon.

Thankfully, I can write off my tortured stomach to a bad burrito because Fey hits a solid bulls-eye as a journalist that leaves the safety of her office writing copy for newscasters to become a war correspondent stationed in Afghanistan. Inspired by Kim Barker’s book ‘The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan’, the auto-biography has been adapted by longtime Fey collaborator Robert Carlock and produced by Fey’s former SNL boss Lorne Michaels into a veritable star vehicle. And it’s right up her alley.

I’ll admit to being more than a little overdosed on the mortar blasts, dusty locales, and terrorists in turbans found in the recent slate of war films so I was pleasantly surprised that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was able to hold my attention the way it did. Telling a war story from a journalistic angle rather than a military one, the film succeeds best when it puts Fey on the frontlines bravely stepping into a firestorm of bullets to get a video clip for the evening news. As Fey/Carlock will have you believe, Barker surprised even herself in the gung-ho way she threw herself into the work and our star never treats it as an opportunity to mine for toothy comedy.

Eschewing the fish out of water approach that could have been taken, the film follows Barker over the four years she was stationed in the Middle East and episodically recounts the situations she encounters and the people she meets along the way. There’s a beautiful Lara Logan-esque blonde bombshell reporter (Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street, reteaming with her Focus directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa), given more depth than the character probably calls for, a surly general (played by a wigged man that looks like Billy Bob Thornton, The Judge…because it is) that’s given less depth than the character calls for, and a kindly local driver (Christopher Abbott, A Most Violent Year) that forms a bond with Barker even though societal norms keeps him from expressing his feelings of friendship.

Barker had several men in her life that cause the only real trouble the film has to offer. She starts off the in a long distance relationship with Josh Charles (Freeheld), is pursued by her Australian bodyguard (Stephen Peacocke, Hercules), wooed by a top Afghan official (Alfred Molina, Monsters University), and eventually warms to a hotshot photographer (Martin Freeman, The World’s End). Only Molina and Freeman register any kind of chemistry (romantic or not) with Fey and in particular it must be noted that Freeman gives one of his best performance, free of any of his heretofore constant nebbish line readings and meek demeanor.

In the end it’s Fey that really sells the film. It was nice to see the actress leave some of her trademark tics back in the US. Gone are the clipped one liners, anguished eye rolls, winking asides to the camera. If some of her lines are delivered with just a hint of her classic smirk, it’s easy to forgive seeing that it feels right in the context of the character.

Carlock’s script leaves a lot unexplained, fails to fully flesh out some of the supporting players, and there’s really no third act to speak of, but the film plays nicely with audiences and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Going in I wasn’t sure I’d like Fey’s further attempts at drama, coming out I was wishing this had come out later in the year so she’d be included in some end of the year recognition. It isn’t unheard of that it could happen seeing that it’s a worthy performance in a decent film.

Movie Review ~ Sisters

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two sisters decide to throw one last house party before their parents sell their family home.

Stars: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz, John Leguizamo, Dianne Wiest, John Cena, James Brolin

Director: Jason Moore

Rated: R

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  We all love Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, right?  I mean, through their celebrated time at Saturday Night Live to their post-late night days with 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, both have shown themselves to be fun-loving ladies that work well with others.  There’s nothing like it when Fey and Poehler team up, though, so Sisters should have been a slam dunk, right?

If the end result is less of a slam dunk and more of a two-pointer, it’s at least better than their last pairing, the tepid Baby Mama from 2008.  That film was highly anticipated but came off feeling like we were watching an extended SNL sketch with Fey playing her usual nerd-ish but noble lady and Poehler going big as a white trash pseudo-surrogate.  In the ensuing years, Poehler and Fey have been reunited on several small screen occasions leading up to successfully hosting the Golden Globes three times, ruling over the festivities with their sly observances.

And now we have another attempt at striking it rich on the big screen and while Sisters is markedly better than Baby Mama, it still winds up falling short of the packaged potential of its stars.  This time, there seemed to be some real thought put into the piece, with Fey and Poehler wisely playing against type in bringing friend (and former SNL writer) Paula Pell’s sorta biographical screenplay to life.

When Maura and Kate’s parents (Dianne Wiest, Parenthood and James Brolin, The 33) decide to sell the Florida home of their youth and move into a retirement complex, the sisters are tasked with cleaning out their room before the new family moves in.  Maura (Poehler, Inside Out) is the responsible one, the sister that never got into trouble and was an eternal sober cab for her hard partying sister Kate (Fey, Admission).  Upset with their parents for listing the lot without telling them, they decide to host one big party for their friends before they have to pack it in and move on with their lives.  Kate promises to abstain from booze so Maura can let loose but as the night goes on the sisters find themselves plunked back into old habits, not always of their own free will.

The film takes a while to get going and it mostly coasts along nicely.  There’s a charming romantic subplot with Maura romancing a hunky neighbor (Ike Barinholtz, heretofore not hunky) and it gives Poehler some nice moments, comedic and otherwise.  Barinholtz should get some props here for dealing with a fairly nasty gross-out gag, one of several that occur during the night of increasing debauchery.

Director Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect) knows when to let his stars do their thing but manages to keep control of the wild party that takes up the latter half of the film.  Balancing a host of comedic players (like Horatio Sanz as that guy we all hate at parties and Maya Rudolph as a bitchy rival) with some third act emotional resonance is no easy task but Sisters earns its stripes thanks to its game cast and willingness to “go there” for laughs.

Boldly opening the same weekend as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Sisters is marketing itself as that other movie you can see after your Star Wars fix is complete.  It’s clever #YouCanSeeBoth campaign works in its good-natured favor and audiences should see both films during their theatrical run.

The Silver Bullet ~ Sisters

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Synopsis: Two sisters decide to throw one last house party before their parents sell their family home.

Release Date:  December 25, 2015

Thoughts: Long-time friends Amy Poehler (Inside Out) and Tina Fey (This is Where I Leave You) were a dynamic duo on the small screen during the time as co-hosts of Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live.  Bold comediennes, they played off of each other well and were the one thing you could count on from week to week to hit the bullseye with their observant comedy.  The relationship continued on into the big screen with 2008’s Baby Mama, a slight romp that didn’t really serve either of them very well.

Arriving in time for the 2015 holiday season, the two are back together with Sisters and while it looks like the latest entry in the “chicks can be raunchy too” genre, Poeher and Fey are so damn likable that I’m willing to toss some goodwill toward (wo)men their way since it’ll be Christmas-time and all.  I like that the actresses are playing against type, with Fey as the more out of control sister and Poehler as the more grounded one.  The trailer is a lively mix of spot the former SNL cast member and ok, it’s not all that funny…but there’s potential.

Movie Review ~ This is Where I Leave You

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When their father passes away, four grown siblings are forced to return to their childhood home and live under the same roof together for a week, along with their over-sharing mother and an assortment of spouses, exes and might-have-beens.

Stars: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Abigail Spencer, Dax Shepard, Jane Fonda

Director: Shawn Levy

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I suppose I need to start my review of This Is Where I Leave you by coming clean and saying that I read Jonathan Tropper’s novel on which his screenplay is based and hated it. Filled with endless turns of cliché situations and characters that seemed discarded from NBC’s 2004 pilot season, the book never made a case for its popularity in my mind. Still, based on the cast director Shawn Levy (The Internship) assembled I hoped the film adaptation would be able smooth out some of the book’s trite developments and be that rare unicorn where the movie was better than the book.

Alas, while the film does ultimately fare better than its source material, it remains a painfully laborious affair with no family squabble left un-squawked and no amount of gooey angst left un-squeezed. While Tropper has streamlined his novel for the big screen, he winded up throwing out more than a few interesting elements that provided these characters with what little interest they were sketched with in the first place. Particularly disappointing is the full-scale lobotomy performed on eldest brother Corey Stoll’s (Non-Stop) backstory, robbing the actor and the audience of some meaty insight into why the man is so gruff and glowering.

Returning home to sit shiva (a Jewish mourning period of 7 days where the family receives guests and remembers the deceased) the Altman children come back to the family homestead with baggage both physical and emotional. Cuckolded brother Judd (Jason Bateman, Bad Words) is dealing with his marital woes, unhappy sister Wendy (Tina Fey, Muppets Most Wanted) juggles scampering children and a non-present husband, responsible brother Paul (Stoll) can’t seem to get his wife (Kathryn Hahn, We’re the Millers) pregnant, and free spirit Phillip (Adam Driver, What If) speeds into town with his older fiancé (Connie Britton, The To Do List) in tow.

Living under the same roof again with their famous child psychiatrist mother (Jane Fonda, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding) could have made for a much more interesting mix of comedy tinged with pathos but Tropper and Levy hardly let a moment go by without a joke involving Fonda’s silicon-ized breasts, even sacrificing a hugely emotional scene near the end of the film to get in one more boob joke.

It’s time for Bateman to hang up this exasperated character he’s been playing for several decades now. He’s interesting enough of an actor to take some stretch opportunities but he’s returned to this well one too many times. Though he creates some nice sparks with Rose Byrne (Insidious) as his high school sweetheart, the rest of his performance seems flat and workmanlike. Hahn is mysteriously underused here, like Stoll she suffers from Tropper’s slicing up of her story arc…though it must be said I’m glad he removed one particular turn of events that would have had audiences furious. Britton barely makes an impact and while Fonda gets some of the best scenes in the movie, she looks like she’s going through the five stages of Botox as the film progresses.

Driver may be the next big thing but I’m yet to be sold on his charm – still, in his own way he gives the role some needed charisma, however oddly he delivers it. Though it pains me to say it, Fey is the real mistake of the film. She probably should have swapped roles with Hahn because her attempts to dig deep find her in shallow waters that she just isn’t yet capable of navigating.

It doesn’t help that these characters are the kind of gross oversized family unit that only can be displayed on the big screen. My movie companion thought that I missed the point because, as an only child, I may not be as in tune with the family dynamics that exist within a large household. This could be true but my problems lie not with the device but with the execution. Worse, the film introduces these messy people and then dares to provide the tidiest of wrap-ups without earning it. Instead of feeling sympathy for the misery everyone is enduring (of which none is related to the death of the patriarch, by the way) I felt like everyone got what was coming to them in one way or another.

The large ensemble family dramadey has been done so much better before in films like Parenthood – leave this one alone and take another look at that film instead. Not much to see here.

The Silver Bullet ~ This is Where I Leave You

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Synopsis: When their father passes away, four grown siblings are forced to return to their childhood home and live under the same roof together for a week, along with their over-sharing mother and an assortment of spouses, exes and might-have-beens.

Release Date: September 19, 2014

Thoughts: I’ve read Jonathan Tropper’s book that inspired this big screen adaptation and I can’t for the life of me see what would attract such appealing comedic names like Jason Bateman (Bad Words), Tina Fey (Muppets Most Wanted), Rose Byrne (Neighbors), and Kathryn Hahn (We’re The Millers). The novel, transparently written with a movie deal in mind, reminded me of a lackluster mid-season replacement pilot that NBC would have burned off in the dog days of summer. While occasionally funny in a depressing way, I couldn’t get past the workmanlike comedic set-ups and generic character sketches Tropper etched for readers. Here’s hoping director Shawn Levy (The Internship) and a cast that also includes Jane Fonda (Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding) and Adam Driver (What If) can make something of it all.

Movie Review ~ Muppets Most Wanted

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The Facts:

Synopsis: While on a grand world tour, The Muppets find themselves wrapped into an European jewel-heist caper headed by a Kermit the Frog look-alike and his dastardly sidekick.

Stars: Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Animal, Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey

Director: James Bobin

Rated: PG

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The release of The Muppets in 2011 represented a new start for the felt character franchise that had seen its share of ups and downs during its history spanning over three decades.  Though I found that film to be fun overall, I felt that it wasn’t as Muppet-centered as it could be, focusing too much time and attention on the human stars (Jason Segel and Amy Adams, American Hustle) instead of the characters so many of us grew up with.

Wisely, Walt Disney Studios (which now owned the trademark for Jim Henson’s creations) wasn’t above retooling their reboot and righted some of the past wrongs with this much better sequel that keeps the  puppets front and center were they belong while keeping the humans at bay on the sidelines.  Original director Jams Bobin is back as are screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (The Five-Year Engagement, Neighbors) and songwriter Bret McKenzie (who won an Oscar for “Man or Muppet” and then went on to star in the awful Austenland) and all seem to be on better footing this time around.

If the first film was more akin to The Muppet Movie from 1979 then Muppets Most Wanted could be compared (favorably) to 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper.  Picking up literally where the first one left off, Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, and the rest of their comrades are sweet-talked into capitalizing on their popular resurgence and going on a world tour.  Trouble is, the man behind the tour is Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais, almost as intolerable as Segel was in the previous film) and he’s in cahoots with a criminal mastermind named Constantine.  Recently escaped from a Siberain gulag, he looks an awful lot like Kermit though he sounds like a amphibian Borat.

This leads to a switcheroo landing Kermit back in the gulag and Constantine using the world tour to steal pieces to a puzzle that will help him to snatch the crown jewels.  Along the way there are musical numbers, a sizable amount of cameos (none of which I’ll spoil here), and quite possibly a long-overdue wedding that I thought had happened in a previous film.

The voices and talents behind The Muppets are beyond reproach (kudos Steve Whitmire, Bill Barretta, Matt Vogel, David Rudman, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz) so let’s focus on the flesh and blood stars that are getting in on the Muppet action.  As mentioned previously, Gervais is a lot to handle and the film features far too many close-ups of his fang-y mug…though a song and dance number that finds Constantine tap dancing on his head provides a hearty chuckle.  Tiny Fey (Admission) has a thin singing voice and an even thinner Russian accent as the gulag grand dame that takes a shine to Kermit.  Ty Burrell plays a Jacques Clouseu-esque detective always ready to go on break…the jokes here get repetitive and old pretty quickly.

McKenzie’s songs are better than the original with several of them landing squarely on target.  Though he stumbles out of the gate with the obvious “We’re Doing a Sequel” he lands a one-two punch of the Barry White-like disco seduction “I’ll Get What You Want (Cockatoo In Malibu)” and the fun  “Interrogation Song” delivered with rap panache by Burrell and Sam the Eagle.

Though it runs ever slightly too long at 112 minutes and lacks the free spirit charm that came with the first trio of adventures to hit the big screen, Muppets Most Wanted is a marked improvement on every level from the previous entry…even though the new Muppet, Walter, is still featured too prominently.  It can’t be a coincidence that those early films were the entries that Jim Henson was most involved with and that kind of vibrancy is hard to duplicate…but this one inches closer to that pleasant territory.

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Movie Review ~ Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The uncompromising Tony and Emmy Award-winner is showcased both on and off stage via rare archival footage and intimate cinema vérité.

Stars: Elaine Stritch, Tina Fey, James Gandolfini, Cherry Jones, Alec Baldwin, Nathan Lane, Rob Bowman

Director: Chiemi Karasawa

Rated: NR

Running Length: 80 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: The Oscar winner for Best Documentary this year was 20 Feet From Stardom, the melodic and inspiring look into the lives of the back-up singers heard on history making songs.  It bested the haunting The Act of Killing which centered on the genocide in Indonesia during the early 60’s.  Both documentaries had striking value but sentimentality seemed to win out in the end.  I’m not sure that Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is going to wind up on any Oscar shortlist next year, but it possesses the same joie de vivre 20 Feet From Stardom had while holding up a painful mirror to the passage of time.

I liked the film so much I watched my screener twice, almost back to back, but talking with a friend who was less impressed later he pointed out that making an entertaining movie about Broadway’s irascible character Elaine Stritch wasn’t exactly hard work.  In fact, it’s akin to shooting fish in a barrel.  Almost from the first frame, Stritch is on fire, traipsing around the streets of NYC in her huge fur coat and comically large glasses that look like two see through dinner plates glued to two black shoehorns.

Over the course of a too short 80 minutes, director Chiemi Karasawa follows Stritch as she prepares for her final shows at the Café Carlyle, the famous NYC cabaret housed in the The Carlyle Hotel which Stritch has held residence in for several decades.  We meet people from her past through excellent archival footage and photographs along with several of the famous faces that our leading lady calls friends.

What makes the film so interesting is that we’re as aware of the cameras as Stritch is.  One of my favorite moments sees Stritch discussing her new show and without missing a beat hysterically dressing down a camera man that got too close for her comfort.  Brutally honest but directing the most fatally barbed comments to herself, there’s a refreshing honesty that comes naturally to her, making the octogenarian instantly relatable to any age group.

I’ve seen Elaine Stritch in her one woman show (Elaine Stritch: At Liberty) and thought I knew all when it came to her upbringing and career but this new documentary reveals yet another layer.  There’s a bit of a downward spiral Stritch is undertaking and though she’s giving it all she’s got you can tell she sees the very faint writing on the wall.  Perhaps that’s why she’s let the cameras follow her and capture some pretty vulnerable moments.

Overflowing with humor with a few dashes of pathos, it’s not the downer of a film I may have made it out to be.  I’d watch Stritch read the phone book so I knew I was bound to like this one – and if you’ve ever heard Stritch on a cast recording or caught her on 30 Rock you’ll probably wind up liking this one too.

The Silver Bullet ~ Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

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Synopsis: What does it mean to be a performing artist – first, last and always? Broadway legend Elaine Stritch can answer that.

Release Date:  TBA 2014

Thoughts: I’ve had the great fortune of seeing Elaine Stritch perform live and it was one of the most thrilling nights I’ve spent in a theater.  A Broadway legend, she’s made a career out of playing brash women that will tell you whats what and make no apologies…which looks to be exactly the same person she is in real life.  I’m not sure an 80 minute documentary could really tell everything we need to know about this lady (her award winning one woman show Elaine Stritch: At Liberty did that just fine) but I’ll be interested to see what people have to say about her and also to see what kind of mischief she gets into when she forgets a camera crew is following her around. 

The Silver Bullet ~ Muppets Most Wanted

Muppets Most Wanted Logo

Synopsis: While on a grand world tour, the Muppets find themselves wrapped into an European jewel-heist caper headed by a Kermit lookalike and his dastardly sidekick.

Release Date:  March 21, 2014

Thoughts: The Muppets never go out of style so it’s nice to see that a sequel was created to follow-up on 2011’s pleasant but not very ground-breaking attempt to re-boot our fuzzy felt friends.  It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why that movie didn’t play as well as it should have – I think it’s because the presence of Jason Segal and Amy Adams overshadowed the true stars of the show a bit too much.  I’m excited that the sequel seems more Muppet focused in an old-school sorta way with stars popping up in cameos and a few familiar faces taking on supporting roles.  We have to wait until spring of 2014 to go on another spree with the Muppets and this teaser is a nice glimpse at what we can expect.

Movie Review ~ Admission

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A Princeton admissions officer who is up for a major promotion takes a professional risk after she meets a college-bound alternative school kid who just might be the son she gave up years ago in a secret adoption.

Stars: Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Nat Wolff, Lily Tomlin, Michael Sheen, Wallace Shawn, Gloria Reuben

Director: Paul Weitz

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  The ads for Admission might make you think this is a true blue comedy and with bona-fide funny stars Fey and Rudd in the mix you could be forgiven if you go into the movie with the wrong expectations.  I read several reviews that trounced the film for not having enough laughs considering the people involved and that’s not entirely fair because Admission is more of a dramedy than your typical comedy and shouldn’t be judged on the same laugh-o-meter as, say, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.  Actually, strike that…even with a smaller amount of laughs Admission has at least 70% more chuckles than that recent bomb.

Anyway, what Admission does right is allowing Fey and Rudd to bring their own flair to the film and that’s when it tends to work the best.  Though it’s about fifteen minutes too long and winds up leaving the audience a bit unfulfilled, there’s a decent amount of good material that gives the movie some heft. 

Perhaps she’s been playing Liz Lemon on TV’s 30 Rock too long or it could be that she’s ever the tiniest bit overexposed, but Fey has an uphill battle here that never really works out like it should.  She’s a Princeton admission counselor that’s as by the book as they come.  Her life is perfectly simple in its planning and assembly…that is until in the span of a few days she gets dumped by her wimp boyfriend (Sheen, looking uncomfortably rumpled) and informed by Rudd’s alternative school teacher that a prospective Princeton student may be the child she gave up for adoption 18 years prior. 

The set-up is nothing new and the skilled audience member will see what parts of Fey’s ordered life will be thrown into turmoil by her recent string of revelations long before the movie chooses to upend them.  With a film as predictable as this, it’s important to have the right type of actors in the mix to make it palatable and that’s where director Weitz (Being Flynn, In Good Company, About a Boy) scores some points.

Though Fey can’t totally shed her recognizable persona, she has a few interesting moments in early scenes as she’s interacting with potential applicants that take shape before her as she’s reading their application stats.  There’s no denying Fey has the charm and wit to make a film work but perhaps if Admission had been less scenes with her running into her ex and a few more that dealt with her own fractured relationship with her mother (a scene stealing Tomlin) a better film, and consequently performance, may have emerged.

It also doesn’t help that Rudd’s role winds up feeling extraneous in the grand scheme of things. Though there’s a misguided attempt to create chemistry between the actors I would have preferred his role to have been smaller or played by someone other than Rudd (who otherwise bounces back nicely from December’s  truly awful This is 40) to help shift the focus back onto Fey’s character.  Every time the movie diverts to show some of the problems with Rudd’s character, I longed for it to relate more to what was going on in Fey’s plotline.

In the end I wasn’t crazy about the direction the movie took, feeling that it robbed Fey’s character of some dignity and the audience from a real resolution.  There’ s a Hollywood resolution firmly in place that in hindsight probably was pre-destined, but it’s frustrating to see some very good talent working with slightly mediocre material.  Even though it’s handsomely made, put Admission on the waitlist until you can watch it in the comfort of your own home and give it your own final grade.