Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:21 pm 
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AARON STANFORD IN TADPOLE

A triumph of restraint and good taste

Fifteen-year-old Oscar of 'Tadpole' is a sophisticated New York preppy, like Holden Caulfield. He's seduced by his mother's best friend, like Dustin Hoffman in 'The Graduate.' His dominance of his world and his complicated existence recall Max Fischer in Wes Anderson's 'Rushmore.' The Upper East Side world of civilized young white people very much suggests Whit Stillman's films, especially 'Metropolitan.' But Tadpole isn't a pastiche. It's a lighthearted and stylish treatment of the old theme of a young boy coming of age through sexual experimentation with older women. As can happen, the excellent Aaron Stanford, who plays young Oscar, is 23, not 15; and his stepmother, Eve, Sigourney Weaver, who ought to be fortyish, is ten years older. They make up for this: Stanford's face can look old and sad, but more often is boyishly innocent; Weaver is plenty sexy, as great looking as ever, and also comes across as very kind. Bebe Neuwirth as Diane, the best friend, who does the actual seducing, is sly and attractive and has a slightly brassy quality that never goes too far. In fact what makes 'Tadpole' so good is its restraint. (Oscar tells his father to listen to silences and realize what's not said is important.)

The dialogue in 'Tadpole' isn't as cool and epigrammatic as Whit Stillman's - in this story there's really only one witty person -- but Oscar's lines are precocious without being too clever. He's appealing because he's decent and polite, a good person as well as intelligent and preternaturally self-possessed. The story is a bit like what might happen if one of Stillman's autobiographical young men set out (at an early stage) to seduce his stepmother. It's just as well that he doesn't succeed. The movie is about a stage rather than an event.

It's true that Gary Winick's 'Tadpole' wants to be a bit more sophisticated than it is. (Maybe it didn't have time to with Digital Video, $150,000, and two weeks of shooting time.) The glamour of uptown Manhattan is almost strong enough to counteract the grainy images; but young Oscar's showoff of French at Boulud may not impress a Francophone audience. His best pal from Chauncy Prep is played by Robert Iler, Tony Jr. in 'The Sopranos' and not exactly a prince of suave. But Oscar (Stanford) is articulate and sensitive and poised enough to convince that he does indeed, for this moment, prefer older women and have the ability to seduce them. All his conversations with stepmother Eve are charming: the climactic incestuous kiss is presented with wonderful taste and restraint. What young heterosexual man at this stage of his life would not lust after, and fall more than a little in love with, an attractive stepmother? The epigraphs from Voltaire are very right for a movie about a precocious boy: they're not brilliantly apposite, they're part of Oscar's pretension. (Such epigraphs so often are hopelessly pretentious without the filmmaker's meaning them to be.) Robert Iler as the buddy gets to be down to earth: 'You want to sleep with your MOM?' John Ritter gets to be the dim dad (even though he's a college professor), but as tact prevails here, there's nothing of the caricature about him.

Perhaps the movie's greatest limitation of perspective is that it's a bit too admiring of Oscar. It might be much better if he appeared to us boyish or jejune at times instead of always scoring in conversation and seduction without flaw. The power of 'The Graduate' was partly the sense of latent terror Hoffman conveyed, but Aaron Stanford never falters - nor does he seem foolhardy: he embodies in superabundance the movie's perfect tact. In short, he's too perfect. But the fact that everybody's exemplarily nice in 'Tadpole' and nobody gets hurt is what allows this movie to be lighthearted fun and end as a brief episode - a great drama only in its hero's mind and soon over, as suits a 15-year-old's life, rather than turning, inappropriately, into a 'dangerous liaison' whose amoral excess leads to tragedy.

'Tadpole' has had great distribution luck - Sundance luck - and has received a lot of press and great audience exposure. But it's a mistake to see this movie as succeeding because it appeals to some kind of special arthouse, inde taste. The movie has been lucky, but it's also a classic story, it gives pleasure, and it's very well done. Was 'Harold and Maude,' to which 'Tadpole' is being compared, some kind of art house-inde thing? No, it was just a phenomenon. People discovered it and they liked it. 'Tadpole' could give everybody in it a big boost, particularly the younger actors.

August 28, 2002

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