Perhaps what's most disappointing about Gary Winick's new film Tadpole is how little it resembles its amphibian namesake: It has none of the squirmy, half-grown, wonderfully and weirdly alive charm of a tadpole. And there's another thing .
"Ooh, 'tadpole' just sounds so spermy," said one Prospect colleague.
There's precious little of that, too, which is rather strange in a movie about a teenage boy's romantic longings for older women. But it all makes sense when we meet the boy in question, a Voltaire-worshipping, French-spouting, adolescent little snot (I mean, wunderkind). Oscar (Aaron Stanford) refers to Puccini, says a woman's soul can be read in her hands and gets "fatigued" rather than tired. In short, he seems less like a tadpole -- his childhood nickname -- and more like a "40-year-old trapped in a 15-year-old's body," as one of his disgusted friends puts it.
Oscar is home in New York on break from school, and while his tweedy professor dad (John Ritter) apologizes to Native Americans over the Thanksgiving toast, Oscar makes cow eyes at his stepmother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver), a cardiac specialist. Drunk and despairing over his forbidden love, Oscar winds up at the home of Eve's best friend, Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), a chiropractor with a sly smile. A little ashram music and massaging later, he winds up in her bed.
Tadpole is supposed to be a charming trifle, a delightful France-by-way-of-Upper-East-Side confection. We ignore any potential weirdness in age difference because Oscar is an old coot anyway. Incestuous overtones? As Oscar would say, "Eve's not my real mother." But what's impossible to ignore is our utterly charmless hero and one very big mystery: Why is this insufferable, pretentious child being touted as irresistible to all the women around him, especially when they're a hundred times sexier than he is?
Neuwirth's Diane in particular is a naughty little firecracker; when she waltzes onscreen with her dark-rimmed eyes and red lips, we know she's trouble. In her best-known role as the repressed, brilliant psychiatrist Lilith on Cheers, Neuwirth let us glimpse the raging sexuality and humor lying beneath the tightly wound bun and clipped voice. Here, Neuwirth's hair hangs loose on her shoulders, and the camera lingers on her sensual face, filmed next to an oil painting of a tiger. As for her bedroom, it's all tiger stripes and leopard spots. She's a lady on the prowl, and in her mischievous, wickedly funny way, she's irresistible.
Except to Oscar, who is too busy idolizing Eve in a montage of cheesy, sexless fantasies: Oscar and Eve ride a merry-go-round, Oscar and Eve sip champagne in a horse-drawn carriage. The real Eve -- it's a miracle we get to know her at all -- is a warm, keenly intelligent woman who feels that something is missing from her life. Her husband is sweet but absentminded; he doesn't listen that well.
And Oscar does, or at least he's supposed to. But there's little proof of this. Oscar shows up at Diane's tea with her girlfriends, to whom she's obviously told every salacious detail about her little fling. They listen, rapt, to his lecture about Voltaire -- they hang on every pompous word. One even gives Oscar her number. He's so passionate. He really listens, they coo, oblivious to the fact that he's just bludgeoning them with his tiresome theories and not listening at all.
Ah, the cure for every 40-something woman's malaise: a self-absorbed teenager. Remind me in 15 years.
The older woman in another recent movie -- Luisa of Y Tu Mama Tambien -- tried the same fix times two. She frolicked with two young boys who were also irritating, but in much more palatable ways: They swapped ostentatious intelligence for farts, masturbation and stupid jokes. The boys of Mama were terrible lovers, childish to the extreme. But they were also wonderfully open to the beauty around them, the piercing melancholy and sensuality of their older companion. Next to them, Oscar looks like a piece of fine taxidermy -- dried out, elegantly posed to look alive but musty as all get out.
Sadly, Tadpole seems content with letting the stuffed shirt take center stage, treating its luminous female characters with the same lack of courtesy Oscar does: They get shortchanged, denied sex and fun and worthy partners, and are filmed on digital video so they look like they're swimming in Tang. Oscar fancies himself a knight in shining armor, whisking Eve away from her stale marriage without himself being sullied by the attentions of a real, sensual woman. But he's no prince. Even with the kisses of two women, this tadpole still turns into a toad in the end.