Love story is short but sweet - and twisted

July 26, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Set entirely during a Thanksgiving weekend in New York, clocking in at a mere 78 minutes, Tadpole proves that brevity is still the soul of wit. But when it comes to the success of worldly comic movies, unpretentious wisdom, ironic control and a crackerjack ensemble also have a lot to do with it.

The tale of a prep-school boy infatuated - or maybe in real love - with his stepmother has nearly perfect pitch.

Oscar Grubman is an original creation: The opposite of Holden Caulfield, he wants to jump headlong into the rye; the opposite of Benjamin Braddock, he can't wait to seduce an older woman and graduate into the seriousness of adulthood. He finds girls his own age uninteresting. And he senses burgeoning inadequacies in the marriage of his historian father, Stanley (John Ritter), to a heart researcher named Eve (Sigourney Weaver): They've fallen into a comfy, culturally nourishing Upper West Side life without answering each other's core needs. (The former Mrs. Grubman lives in France.) Oscar's romantic quest is semi-chivalrous; at least it is to Oscar.

Shot on digital video, the movie has no visual dimension. But to make this concept work, what counts is not the color or the lighting but the casting. Happily, Aaron Stanford imbues Oscar with the uncensored intellectual idealism of a high school boy who thinks he comprehends a universe he hasn't yet fully experienced. Stanford brings a pure, clean focus to his character. On the one hand, you can see the confusion beneath his putdowns of his peers; on the other, you see why women who've had their fill of middle-aged male jadedness would consider him an exciting possibility.

The moviemakers, wisely, don't underplay his adolescent bumbling, even when he experiments with sideburns formed from the hair of a dog. His union of soulfulness and silliness is part of what makes him oddly lovable.

The director, Gary Winick, and his writers, Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller, have devised an apt scenario to bring out the comedy-drama of a kid who spends too much time in his own head. They go for - and usually get - authentic comedy, and they avoid the smarmy, titillating moves that might push the action into blue boulevard farce. They are supremely fortunate in their star. What boy on the brink of manhood wouldn't fall in love with his stepmom if she were Sigourney Weaver? Who on Earth wears beauty - and intelligence - more gracefully?

Weaver gives a masterfully restrained performance as a sensitive woman with a clear-eyed view of human nature. When Oscar visits her in her lab-office, he impresses her with his feeling for "the poetry of the pericardium." But Eve says she doesn't need the verbal poetry of the heart's medical terms because she has the poetry of "the thing itself."

Winick intersperses the comedy-drama with title cards bearing quotes from Voltaire. They set a tone of airy enlightenment and also provide delicious off-the-cuff urban ironies: For example, Voltaire's injunction for us to "cultivate our gardens" precedes a father-and-son trip to the food market.

But the wild card in this movie is Bebe Neuwirth as Eve's best friend, a chiropractor named Diane - a sensual woman who is happy and unconflicted about succumbing to Oscar. (On his alcohol-dazed first night back in Manhattan, he's drawn to her because she's borrowed Eve's scarf and smells like her perfume.) Diane has resolved to seize pleasure whenever it may come. Despite Oscar's pleading, she refuses to cancel dinner with the Grubmans the night after her tryst with him - after all, it's a nice restaurant, and Stanley is paying.

Diane is a realistic improviser, and Neuwirth brings off the role with flirty charm, crack timing and surprising grit. She convinces you that Diane is ultimately a truth-teller; she knows that Oscar's real love object is Eve, and she prods both her friend and her one-day lover to think to the bottom of their thoughts and feel to the bottom of their feelings.

Precisely because the movie is so quick and deft - Ritter is slyly affable in the role of Stanley, setting the Upper West Side tone succinctly with a Thanksgiving toast condemning genocide - the abrupt climax is disappointing.

Although the movie carries Oscar's pursuit of Eve about as far as it can believably go, the resolution lacks resonance. Luckily, the picture rights itself with a bright coda. It makes you believe that Oscar's train back to school just might be a magic railroad, and that, as the final quote from Voltaire puts it, if he doesn't find anything "pleasant" -or inspiring - at least he'll discover something new.

Tadpole

Starring Aaron Stanford, Sigourney Weaver and Bebe Neuwirth

Directed by Gary Winick

Released by Miramax

Rated PG-13

Time 78 minutes

Sun score ***1/2

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