Coitus Interruptus 

Tadpole gives Oedipus complex a bad rap

At age 15, Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford) has out-grown his childhood nickname "Tadpole," and then some. In Tadpole, he attends a New England prep school called Chauncey, but he would probably wear a coat and tie even if they weren't part of his uniform. Described as "a 40-year-old in a 15-year-old's body," he disdains typical teen pursuits in favor of Voltaire. Tadpole the film bears a resemblance to its lead character, as the film tries to affect maturity and experience that it hasn't really earned. Director Gary Winick has several movies to his credit (all of them obscure), yet Tadpole seems like the work of a talent still in gestation. A hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Tadpole has an impressive cast and a tart premise, but it doesn't live up to its potential.

Winick shot the film in two weeks for $150,000, but the gauziness of digital video only works for him in the first shots. Oscar stares out a train window on his way home for Thanksgiving break, and the autumn leaves blur like an impressionist painting. After that, the picture's lack of crispness simply looks cheap.

Oscar confides to his best friend (Robert Iler, "The Sopranos'" Anthony Jr.) that he brushes off girls his age because he already has an infatuation, but he won't say with whom. That night, at a party of Manhattanite intellectuals, we quickly realize that Oscar is smitten by his own stepmother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver), although neither she nor his father (John Ritter) realize it.

Eve simply sees Oscar as a lovable kid, while her friend Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), a divorced masseuse, sizes him up as a young man. Following the party, Oscar drowns his unrequited love at the corner bar -- the teen must either have a blind bartender or a flawless fake I.D. -- and encounters Diane, who insists he come home with her. Diane gives him a rubdown on her massage table, but what truly fires Oscar's ardor is the way she wears one of his stepmother's scarves.

For years, Bebe Neuwirth has hilariously played the icy Lilith Sternin on "Cheers" and "Frasier." But in Broadway musicals like Chicago, she frequently plays vamps and Tadpole is a terrific vehicle for her sly, seductive side. Diane seems like a woman who's been burned by bad relationships and takes pleasures where she finds them, proving blunt, sensual and -- most distressing for Oscar -- completely unpredictable.

Tadpole's sex-farce mechanics get in gear the morning after their drunken tumble. Diane's boyfriend, mistaking him for a massage client, asks, "How long has Diane been doing you?" Oscar's main reaction to being deflowered is panic that Diane will tell Eve of their night together. Diane forces him to share a meal with her friends, and these "ladies who lunch" are wowed by his articulate sophistication. The joke is that the most eligible, appealing bachelor in New York isn't old enough to drive.

Stanford was 24 when Tadpole was filmed, but he credibly plays an adolescent. He's good-looking without being too old or movie-actor pretty, and he makes Oscar's intellectual pretensions seem natural. Stanford's Oscar may be pedantic, but he's not overbearing about it. Yet he's also naive enough to be credible in his misbegotten attempts to be attractive to Eve, like when he attaches fake sideburns to his face.

Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller's writing is far more self-conscious than Stanford's acting. The film features recurring quotes from Voltaire in white letters on a black background, which come so quickly and seem so random that they're a bigger affectation than anything Oscar does. The soundtrack also tries too hard, with its jaunty jazz violins and saxophones, like it's trying to set the tone of a Woody Allen comedy, without the timing or confidence.

The script makes its worst misstep when two characters get wise to Oscar and Diane's tryst and awkwardly footnote one of Tadpole's cinematic influences:

"It's all very The Graduate," says one.

"Except Oscar hasn't graduated!" says the other.

That exchange is enough to make you throw rotten vegetables at the screen. But even the softer scenes lack subtlety. Eve works as a medical researcher and when Oscar visits her at the lab, they inevitably talk about whether hearts are viable symbols of love. While Weaver conveys Eve's sensitive, melancholy sides, she gives a rather vanilla performance, making Oscar's infatuation even more mysterious.

When Tadpole ends after a mere 78 minutes, you wonder if a reel has gone missing. The film neatly resolves its conflicts and gives Oscar an epiphany with little of the raw emotions and soul-searching the Oedipal premise calls for. Tadpole lacks the insights for a satisfying character study, yet the plotting is too conservative to be a truly transcendent farce. The cast may all get passing grades, but Tadpole itself only earns an "incomplete."


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