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Admission (2013) vs. About a Boy (2002)

Lissa Coffey

The Smackdown

Even the most intelligent, wealthy, successful adults can be pretty clueless about raising kids. Think about the living hell these folks must endure — all that time, freedom and discretionary income on their hands, but no one for their inner children to play with! Luckily, in the world of producer/director Paul Weitz, there’s always a chance that a kid might unexpectedly enter their lives and rouse them from their self-absorbed, myopic, world view.

Weitz recreates the formula that worked so well in About a Boy in his new romantic comedy, Admission, starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd. Both movies have appealing stars playing characters who appear polished and competent on the outside, yet who are somewhat damaged and lost on the inside. In both, the protagonist’s world is shaken when a boy comes along to makes them question everything they hold dear. The experiences they go through cause them to change, which in turn causes the people around them to change as well.

And, of course, both have the cute kid factor that makes this kind of movie so popular.  As a mopey adolescent, Nicholas Hoult, who’s doing pretty well for himself these days in  adult roles (X-Men, Clash of the Titans), pretty much stole About a Boy from then-hot, romantic leading man Hugh Grant. Admission’s got two cute kids to choose from, in the form of Nat Wolff and 11-year-old Travaris Spears.

Why are kids always so much smarter than adults in these films?

admissionThe Challenger

Admission, from Weitz and screenwriter Karen Croner, is based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Jean Hanff Korelitz, who is married to a Princeton University professor and has worked in the university’s Office of Admissions. Korelitz definitely has some insight into the process of applying to a world-class school as well as the emotions involved for both applicants and the admissions staff.

Portia Nathan (Fey) plays a Princeton admissions officer, who evaluates thousands of applicants each year and lives her life with the same by-the-book predictability and unattached emotion that make her so successful at her job. When Portia hits the road on her annual recruiting trip, she meets a former college classmate, idealistic teacher John Pressman (Rudd), a single father and free spirit, with a passion for philanthropy and world travel. John believes that one of his gifted yet unconventional students, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), might be the son Portia secretly gave up for adoption years ago, before crawling back into her shell.

Portia’s got a mother (Lily Tomlin), whose domineering nature is somewhat reminiscent of Frances McDormand’s iconic character in Almost Famous. Tomlin’s Susannah helps define her grown daughter in a memorable way. Portia’s personal life is further illustrated by her rigid relationship with her Princeton professor boyfriend Mark, played by Michael Sheen, who also played Fey’s boyfriend in her TV series 30 Rock.

about-a-boyThe Defending Champion

Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) is a 38-year-old bachelor who loves his unattached lifestyle (hence the name “free man,” if we didn’t quite get that). Thanks to an inheritance, he spends his days doing nothing and enjoying every “unit of time” in his orderly, isolated world. When Will realizes he’s lost all his playmates to parenthood, he roguishly decides to seek out single mothers for companionship instead, and joins a parenting group in an attempt to pass himself off as a solo dad.

Through this group, Will attends a picnic, where he sees 12-year-old Marcus accidentally kill a duck with a loaf of bread. Will covers for Marcus, who becomes taken with his easy charm. Upon returning the boy home, Will learns that Marcus’s personal life is unhappy – his single mother Fiona (Toni Collette) is suicidally depressed.

At first, Marcus hopes Will will date his mother and turn her life around, but that’s the last thing Will wants. Still, Marcus decides to hang out at his grown friend’s apartment after school rather than go home. Will doesn’t like this much either, but goes along with it to prevent Marcus from spilling the beans to the ladies that Will is not really a dad.

When Marcus is chased to Will’s apartment by school bullies one afternoon, Will starts to realize how important their relationship has become to him. His “every man is an island” philosophy starts to crack, and he decides to come clean with new love Rachel (Rachel Weisz) about his parenting status. Rachel dumps him, leaving Will too distraught to pick up on the dire situation when Marcus comes to him with concerns about his mother. Marcus must take matters into his own hands.

About a Boy is based on the novel by Nick Hornby, with screenplay by Peter Hedges, Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz. The Weitz brothers also directed the film.

The Scorecard

Both of these movies are well written and brilliantly directed. Both make the point that despite our efforts to have things otherwise, we are all connected, and relationships bring us happiness. In Admission, with seasoned comedians Fey, Rudd and Tomlin in lead roles, the comedy – both dry humor and slapstick – comes first. Where Collette’s Fiona is deeply troubled and tries not to show it, Portia is awkward and self-conscious, and it’s played for laughs. Whether she’s crying in a pantry, or waking up at her desk with bed-head, we know she needs to make some changes in her life.

With About a Boy, Hugh Grant’s Will is as cool as a cucumber. We might even envy his easy lifestyle, and the fact that he knows who he is, even when he says, “I really am that shallow.” The comedy is there, but it comes second. We’re given time to see Will and Marcus bond, to see how this boy, really a wise young soul, affects Will and the decisions he makes. Marcus sees what Will can’t see, and feels what Will can’t feel. This could be tough to play, but Nicholas Hoult makes it look easy. Score one for About a Boy.

In Admission, while Jeremiah is the “boy” in the scenario, it’s John who opens Portia’s eyes to the options she has. Yet in comparison to Weitz’ earlier film, their relationship seems rushed, as they are thrown into over-the-top circumstances that are meant to create a bond. Still, Rudd plays a great boyfriend, so we end up rooting for this seemingly mismatched couple. It’s a little confusing why this relaxed guy would fall for such a buttoned-up career woman, but Rudd makes

us believe it anyway. He scores one for Admission just by showing up.

Both films are shot in beautiful locations, but since About a Boy takes place in London, there’s a bit more eye-candy in the scenery.

The Decision

Both movies won me over with their humor and wonderful, poignant message of connection. How could anyone not love Tina Fey, especially after she and Amy Poehler did such a great job hosting the Golden Globes, an almost impossible job open to criticism from everyone in the industry? On the other hand, women all over the world swooned over Hugh Grant at the peak of his career as a leading man. About a Boy was a perfect vehicle for him.

I guess it comes down to, what movie would you like to see again? For me, there’s no contest, because one film is naturally charming, heartwarming and sweet without being silly. And that film is our winner, About a Boy.

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