Arrested Development

The sexual comedy of 'Tadpole' remains in the larval stage

Aaron Stanford, an actor whose debut film is the Sundance favorite Tadpole, resembles a young Jeremy Irons. In recent years, an older Irons played Humbert Humbert, obsessed with an unlikely 12-year-old in Lolita. In Tadpole, Stanford plays Oscar, an unlikely 15-year-old obsessed with a 40-year-old. Both Oscar and Humbert have sex across generations. Even the previews of Lolita left me feeling a bit queasy. Tadpole makes my eyes roll. One reads "pedophilia" and the other, "Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me?" I wonder why. Is it that splinter in my eye called one-out-of-every-three-women-in-the-U.S.-has-been-sexually-abused? Or is it that log in society's eye that assumes male invulnerability, even if the male is 15 years old? And is my splinter just another chip off that old log?

Tadpole does not concern itself with such questions. Instead, director Gary Winick asks: "What happens when you cross Rushmore with Harold & Maude, Spanking the Monkey, and Class?" The Class genes turn out to be potent. Sundance approval aside, Tadpole is no classic. It's not even surprising, as was the raw mother-son dalliance of Spanking. Rather, Tadpole seems to be swimming in water over its head, even as it refuses to peer beneath the surface.

The scene is prep-school vacation, Upper East Side, affable doorman. Stanford's Oscar, a Voltaire-quoting romantic, disdains girls his age. Oscar is in love with his mother Eve (Sigourney Weaver), but she's not his biological mother (who's French, by the way--wink-wink). Eve is his stepmom, the second wife of his father Stanley, played by John Ritter. (Yes, Ritter and Weaver are supposed to be married--and worse, Ritter plays an academic! Talk about swimming out of your depth.) Drunk and yearning, Oscar ends up sleeping with his mother's best friend Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), a chiropractic masseuse who compliments him on his "bigness" and recommends 15-year-olds to her female friends. Oscar's buddy Charlie (Robert Iler)--way too normal to be Oscar's buddy--carefully warns him off his mother.

Excusez-moi, Mrs. Robinson: Aaron Stanford and Sigourney Weaver in 'Tadpole'
Miramax Films
Excusez-moi, Mrs. Robinson: Aaron Stanford and Sigourney Weaver in 'Tadpole'

The movie quotes Voltaire excessively--through dialogue and title cards--to grant an intellectual tone to the "comic" proceedings: "Love shows signs that cannot be mistaken," etc. (In addition, subtitles helpfully translate Excusez-moi.) Winick fills the air with dreadful music--half of it drippy folk sucking up to Harold & Maude-era Cat Stevens, and half a sort of watered-down Philip Glass with, you know, xylophone. Perhaps the soundtrack's awfulness was meant to distract the viewer from the quality of the visuals, which were shot in digital video over 14 days, and look it. But what results is a fuzzy feeling of nostalgia--especially when heartsick Oscar gets served at a corner bar until he's drunk. That ain't Giuliani's Manhattan. It belongs to Winick, a 40-year-old who grew up on the Upper East Side.

Winick's age and gendered wistfulness color his film in other ways, most pathetically in the character of Diane. Pity the sly-eyed and lithe Neuwirth, who must pretend to assert, sadly: "If you hadn't met someone for a very long time who was excited about life, you would consider a 15-year-old." One of her friends, upon meeting Oscar, gushes: "He's so passionate! And he listens!"--although Oscar's greatest gift appears to be declaiming on all things in the most pretentious manner possible. I guess we middle-aged ladies like that. We also like his smooth, developed body (Stanford himself is 23)--and, apparently, his technique. I gotta say, I found Y Tu Mamá También's too-quick-on-the-trigger teens slightly more convincing.

But then Alfonso Cuaron's spring hit communicated both the fears and attractions of a cross-generational sexual relationship, plumbing depths that Tadpole takes pains to skirt. Cuaron took note of female and male vulnerabilities--and strengths, too. His older woman may be the agent of the boys' change, but her motives extend beyond their situation. Diane and Eve, on the other hand, are devoid of any motives that don't concern male attention. Winick's women remain pond algae as his tadpole grows up, Bowie wailing Ch-ch-changes...to all the lost boys in the audience who would relive (or live for the first time) their beautiful, passionate youth.

Okay. Stanford does have a kissable lower lip, and he conveys more than an irritating facility with French. (He would make a believable 18-year-old.) And I did laugh more than once during the dinner scene--which constitutes one-tenth of this 77-minute movie. Figure a dollar every ten minutes and it's cheaper than a midway game. Plus, win or lose, the stuffed frog is yours.

 
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