starring Sigourney Weaver, Aaron Stanford, John Ritter, Bebe Neuwirth
screenplay by Heather McGowan & Neils Mueller
directed by Gary Winick
by Walter Chaw An underwritten indie The Graduate (a connection the film makes itself) that plays a little more like one of J.D. Salinger's terrible short stories than like Wes Anderson's dead brilliant Rushmore (which it aspires to be at every turn), Tadpole emerges as exactly the kind of self-conscious product that crowds equate, knee-jerk-like, with independent credibility. Buoyed at times by an occasional sweetness and Bebe Neuwirth's fantastic performance as a hippie still flying her freak flag (or at least her free-love banner), Tadpole hints at what it might have been had it the courage to follow through on the ramifications of a fifteen-year-old boarding school Voltaire-quoting brat using the language of his absent mother to attempt to win his stepmother Eve (Sigourney Weaver) away from his ineffectual academic of a dad (John Ritter).
Oscar (Aaron Stanford, rapid-fire and free-talking like a Whit Stillman protagonist) is a moony teen home on winter break who disdains girls his age for their "childlike" hands while pining for his imperious stepmom. After getting drunk and mugged by a tattooed lounge singer in the most conceptually fuzzy bar in New York, Oscar stumbles home with Eve's best pal Diane (Neuwirth), where the two promptly engage in a February/October tryst. Stricken with guilt and consumed by the same kind of angst that afflicts Rushmore's Max, Spanking the Monkey's Ray, and Harold and Maude's Harold--call it the "Oedipal Complexity" or the "Shagging Mommy Blues"--Oscar attempts to win his elder lady love with charmingly clumsy extended metaphors using scientific terms for parts of the heart and jousting that perhaps the liver would be a better organ shorthand for l'amour. Less charmingly, Oscar's boorish naïveté is played as manna to the starving sexual gullets of lonely forty-somethings rather than the cutesy smarmy it is--Tadpole might be a fantasy set in Holden Caulfield's romantic Manhattan wonderland, but the film wants to mock Oscar for his youth with one fey flip and to celebrate it with another.
Oscar's nicknamed "tadpole" by the doorman of his parent's penthouse ivory tower, and the peculiarity of the appellation is that it encapsulates the embryonic sliminess of the film itself. Half-formed and not really resembling the adult version of itself, Tadpole recasts better movies as situation comedies and in so doing locates itself as a pretty nice (unoriginal) idea with few aspirations beyond inspiring a bidding war at Sundance for its furtive parsing. Weaver's totemic appeal is a mystery with the film beginning in medias res as it does; Stanford is unconvincing as both philosopher and paramour (shades of Pitt attempting the line "Machiavellian machinations" in Meet Joe Black); and Ritter, proving himself at times a capable character actor, is a tweedy lump of ineffectual half-declarations ("But...then again...maybe it's..."). All of which leaves Neuwirth to strut away with the film in proof positive that the actress needs more screen roles and quickly.
With an ending that betrays its central character and theme in an essential and disheartening way, Tadpole's lacking the courage of its convictions is forgiven to a degree because of the picture's inconsequence and Neuwirth's lively bemusement. What I'm saying is that it doesn't matter that it's empty and scattered since it's ultimately too trivial to matter, and no amount of hype will turn this murky pre-frog into anything resembling an indie prince. Originally published: July 26, 2002.