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Tina Fey: smart, funny but is she a movie star?

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Taylor Swift says Tina Fey is going to hell; Sarah Palin would probably like to send her.

But wait just a second -- doesn't everyone love Tina Fey?

We'll find out Friday, with the opening of Admission, directed by Paul (Little Fokkers) Weitz. The film stars Fey as a proper Princeton admissions officer who suspects an offbeat applicant is the son she gave up for adoption. En route to self-realization and romance, Portia Nathan (Fey) proceeds to bend over backward to help Jeremiah (Nate Wolff) join the Ivy League, along the way violating everything she stands for.

Which would be absolutely nothing like the maverick Fey appearing in a formulaic rom-com about crossroads, conscience and finding the path to true love. Nothing like that at all.

Fey is a singular quantity; she's been an eminently likable, attractive alien in the world of network television. If the affectionately regarded actress and writer has had any significance -- as the star of 30 Rock, one-time Saturday Night Live head writer, Weekend Update anchor and Palin impersonator -- it's been as an island of intelligence in a roiling sea of idiocy. Like many a great invention, Fey filled a need the public didn't quite know it had -- the need for a moderate voice, alternately smart, snarky and even smug, that acknowledged the inanity of pop culture, the lowly standards of political leadership, and that the world is both unjust and hilarious.

Not to put too heavy a spin on a career that's produced Baby Mama and Date Night, but she belongs to a tradition that includes Mark Twain and Will Rogers. That the comparisons are all male isn't insignificant, either.

Should it click with audiences, Admission, which co-stars Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin and Michael Sheen, will further Fey's mission to transfer her formidable small-screen self to the big screen. And why would she want to do that? Because it's irresistible, apparently. And because, as the Peter Principle stated some 40-odd years ago, everyone rises to their level of incompetence.

If Washington is Hollywood for ugly people, TV is Hollywood for talented people who don't have to appeal to the largest number of viewers via the least amount of substance. There's no question that the best drama is on TV. When allowed to gallop unfettered through the sunny fields of uncensored cable, comedy flourishes far better on television than under the constipated fart-joke mentality of Hollywood. Part of Fey's appeal, of course, has been that she's not edgy, not in an E! sort of way. Nor has she been what one would call hilarious. She occupies a very comfortable niche between droll and amusing, embellished by endearing self-effacement and a face that's certainly pretty, but not enough to be threatening.

But when you get past her Palin impersonation, which was abetted by physical resemblance and a sitting duck, Fey has gone after people with satire's equivalent of a Nerf bat. The caricatured egomaniacs of 30 Rock were skewered pretty affectionately. Her humour has been pointed, but not to the extent of drawing blood. We like that. The fact that Swift would react so petulantly to the ribbing she got from Fey and Amy Poehler at the Golden Globes says more about Swift's thin skin than the soft "attacks" on the singer's peripatetic love life.

Palin? OK, she has a reason to hold a grudge.

But Fey is generally perceived as both nice and tangential. It's arguable that her biggest big-screen success, both financially and comedically, has been Mean Girls, which did great things for the former Lindsay Lohan and was also a perfect showcase for Fey, the trenchant observer of mores and mayhem. Her script was the best portrait of extreme girlhood since Amy Heckerling's Clueless, and she brought a tart taste of adult reality to a tale of adolescent indulgence, playing the beleaguered teacher, Ms. Norbury.

It was an onscreen role that best defined Fey's offscreen persona, a kind of Greek chorus crying comically about the stunted adolescence of American society. As a potential movie star, however, Fey seems not only unsuitable but disloyal to the audiences that see her as a fly in the cultural ointment. It's an unlikely parallel, admittedly, but she's like Edmund O'Brien's alcoholic publisher in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, who is appalled to find himself nominated for Congress.

O'Brien: "Good people of Shinbone, I ... I ... I'm your conscience. I'm the still small voice that thunders in the night. I'm your watchdog that howls against the wolves. I'm ... I'm your father confessor. I ... I ... I'm, what else am I?"

John Wayne: "The town drunk."

Tina Fey is a town crier, who doesn't howl or thunder, but cocks an eloquent eyebrow at the absurdities of contemporary life. Do we want such a resource absorbed into the system? People of Shinbone, do we want Tina Fey to be a movie star? Consider your options, and vote accordingly.

-- Newsday

Movie Preview


Starring Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin and Michael Sheen

Opens Friday

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 20, 2013 C3

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