Movie review, 'Tadpole'

The sweet-tempered, digitally shot "Tadpole" is a slight film given substance by the crisp comic performances of its four leads, including newcomer Aaron Stanford as Holden Caulfield/Benjamin Braddock clone Oscar Grubman. There are moments of originality and giddy joyousness that recall Wes Anderson's "Rushmore."

The film unfolds from the point of view of Oscar, a 15-year-old preppie who quotes Voltaire, orders off the menu in fluent French, and possesses the sophisticated, romantic air of a privileged, urbane Manhattanite. Of course, he thinks he has nothing in common with girls his own age and views them with disdain -- an attitude underscored by the film's unflattering depiction of a smitten classmate who slips into fumbling-girl mode when she's around him. Oscar's best buddy is the wholly improbable Charlie, who is pure "American Pie" to Oscar's "The Graduate."

Heading home for Thanksgiving break, Oscar plans to confess his love for Eve (Sigourney Weaver), the wife of his professor father (John Ritter). A medical researcher, Eve is earnest and elegant, and she treats Oscar with an appropriate mix of maternal concern and intelligence that only causes his lovesick heart to beat faster. Stanford and director Gary Winick get the self-conscious, self-important passions of a bright adolescent exactly right.

Several lively scenes allow the actors room to play. Following Oscar's tryst with Eve's best friend, vivacious chiropractor Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), the film builds to a centerpiece worthy of French farce. Neuwirth steals the slapstick spotlight, as Diane deliberately and good-naturedly baits a mortified Oscar.

But after this high point, the rest of this wisp of a film -- it's only 78 minutes long -- stumbles into the preciousness of a Whit Stillman ("Barcelona," "The Last Days of Disco") movie. And one begins to detect the whiff of yet another melancholy male coming-of-age fantasy.

Tadpoling, apparently now part of the pop-culture lexicon for older women/younger men liaisons (it's also Oscar's nickname), usually refers to twentysomethings or thirtysomethings, not teens -- no matter how much Voltaire they can quote. That Winick turns this into ironic comedy rather than something sensational is one of the movie's charms. But Oscar's, and the film's, courtly manner softens any erotic or emotional danger, unlike the sexually charged, class-conscious "Y Tu Mama Tambien," for instance.

Ritter continues his string of solid supporting turns as the liberal, ingratiating dad. But Weaver and Neuwirth are the sparks in this film, as they project a maternal sexiness and sincerity that's entirely believable. Rather than the egos that drive most aging actor/young actress screen pairings, Neuwirth and Weaver evoke the tenderness and poignancy of Louis Malle's 1971 classic "Murmur of the Heart." But as likable as it is, "Tadpole" is hardly a maturing woman's revenge movie, but another male fantasy -- that of the sexually nurturing mother figure. If only all coming-of-age sexual experiences could be as healthy and wholesome.

3 stars (out of 4)
"Tadpole"
Directed by Gary Winick; written by Niels Mueller, Heather McGowan; photographed by Hubert Taczanowski; edited by Susan Littenberg; production design by Anthony Gasparro; music by Renaud; produced by Gary Winick, Dolly Hall, Alexis Alexanian. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday, July 26. Running time: 1:18. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sexual content, mature thematic elements and language). Eve -- Sigourney Weaver
Oscar -- Aaron Stanford
Diane -- Bebe Neuwirth
Stanley -- John Ritter
Charlie -- Robert Iler

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