Director: Gary Winick. Cast: Aaron Stanford, Sigourney Weaver, Bebe Neuwirth, John Ritter, Ron Rifkin. Screenplay: Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller (based on a story by Heather McGowan, Niels Mueller, and Gary Winick).

Tadpole is light years from being the first New York City comedy to be both inspired and outshone by the long shadow of Woody Allen. It may, however, be the first film made squarely in the tradition of late Woody Allen, the Woody whom nobody likes, the one who makes things like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, the Woody who has senesced into a coarse and blockheaded version of himself. There is no mistaking the general lineage of the conception, whether or not the filmmakers themselves acknowledge it—and I assure you, the last way I will spend even five minutes of my time is in researching the feelings and designs of the people who threw Tadpole together. Here we are, again, among the New York City gentility, where the apartments are cavernous and burnished, and the doorman a luckless participant in flat repartee. Where not a character between the ages of 15 and 25 may pass across the screen without someone mentioning Columbia. Where a bearded middle-aged man in wire-rims and sweaters is, it hardly need be said, a college professor, in the History department of, wouldn’t you know, Columbia. The air is peppered, too, with allusions to private schools and oak-paneled academies, places with names like “Chauncey,” which stand for themselves in the plot, the Old-World sound of their syllables perfectly sufficient to establish the idiomatic universe of wealthy complacency. And while we’re on this tour, why not visit the bedroom? Narcissistic anxieties and incestuous neuroses hang in the air like static electricity, buzzing into every other room of the house, humming along every sidewalk and alleyway. It’s all so knowing, so urbane, so “indie,” non?

The premise, the locales, the characters, and the comedic vernacular of Tadpole are all so overfamiliar as to be embarrassing. Any film with such a formulaic foundation—sexual foibles and saucy misadventure in moneyed Manhattan—faces the burden of succeeding in spite of it, and yet Tadpole just dumbly offers it back up to us, as though director Gary Winick and his two co-screenwriters think they are laying down some sort of royal flush, when all they really have is one more movie of the same old kind. At least Igby Goes Down, which seemed to me to grossly overestimate our sympathies and dangerously mismanage its oddball cast, collapsed in a special and distinct way. And small parts of that film did work, like Claire Danes’ performance and the occasional well-placed song.

Tadpole just pushes through the motions of a plot in which Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford), a 15-year-old preppie with predilections for operetta and Voltaire, strains to express a tumescent crush on his own stepmother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver). With Eve unavailable, Oscar tumbles into the next best thing, a drunken roll in the sack with her lascivious friend Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), who, well, happens to be wearing Eve’s scarf. Which is, like, Freudian: that the film even includes such a device, instead of taking it for granted that Oscar and Diane just Did It, is early proof of a conservative, highly ambivalent stance toward sexual farce. Also, the film has trouble deciding, and ultimately elects not to, whether Oscar’s precocity is really so impressive to a 40-year-old woman, or if Diane will simply sleep with anything that walks. The second option seems more likely, though it translates into a cheap role for Neuwirth, dead-weighted in particular with a crass pseudo-seduction scene on a chiropractic table that ranks right down there with the scene in Allen’s Celebrity when Neuwirth instructs Judy Davis in the ways of fellatio, using a banana. Does this sparkling actress really get so few film offers that she embraces such humiliating fare? Even in a film that’s only 77 minutes long, Tadpole already feels padded with grotesque close-ups of Oscar’s face while Neuwirth works her palmy magic. The whole scene, easily removable, is governed by a thin logic of “Do you think they’ll do it?”, which of course they will, since otherwise, Tadpole would only have been 47 minutes long.

Of course, maybe 15-year-old Oscar really is a chick magnet, a surprising stance that the film ventures in its second-worst scene, where Oscar crashes Diane’s lunch date with some cooing middle-aged women, all of whom are insistently smitten with him, saying things in breathy voices while he extols Adam Smith. Again, the farce is lame, but it isn’t even left as farce—the screenwriters try to “substantiate” this silly conceit by having the women privately say to one another, “Gosh, he really listens!” As though what every ignored wife or lonely singleton is secretly wishing is that an erudite, open-faced high-school sophomore could pop in and turn her on. Maybe if newcomer Aaron Stanford made a more scintillating Oscar, the movie’s maladroit characterization and strained logic would hold up better. But, Stanford is virtually verveless, a point made all the clearer in any scene he has away from Neuwirth and Weaver, who at least snap him to attention. (Some buddy scenes with Robert Iler, that annoying kid from The Sopranos, are torture.) Nor does Stanford look remotely 15—another instance of hedging bets. Why not cast someone who actually approximated the dangerously low age of the character? That might actually give this film a little edge, which it so desperately wants (and which Miramax, which laid out millions of ill-spent bucks acquiring it, apparently thought it had). Or else, make Oscar 18 or 19 and be done with it.

Or just be done with it period. Why does Tadpole need to exist? Why on earth would anyone watch it? Yes, it is exasperating to watch Woody Allen, who still remembers when mammals ventured from the water, cavort with Charlize Theron and Elisabeth Shue and Debra Messing and Helen Hunt—but reversing the gender specifications doesn’t make this scenario any more interesting, and nor does supplying the youngster with the romantic agency make this any more charming. Hollywood needs, post-haste, to start realizing how sexy and complicated and attractive middle-aged women can be, but Tadpole is not the way to do it. And nothing could be less sexy or complicated or attractive than Tadpole itself, with its jaundiced, grainy digital video surface (my monthly electric bill could have funded this whole picture) and its creaky archetypes, its predictable climaxes, its “why did we even bother?” ending.

I saw an earlier feature by Gary Winick, something called Sweet Nothing from 1996, where Michael Imperioli played a drug dealer and addict whose vicissitudes wore out his wife, Mira Sorvino. I have in my records that I gave the film a “B–,” so I must have liked something about it, though memory fails me. But Tadpole ranks right down there with the worst of this year—as needless as the adaptation of Possession, as visually grungy as FearDotCom, as obvious as Frailty, as tragically (un-)hip as One Hour Photo. And, as the most expensive purchase at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, Tadpole carries even stronger negative vibes: is this what latter-day “independent” American moviemaking has come to? From Poison to this in eleven years? And this is what Miramax elects to foist on us, instead of all that interesting foreign work they snap up around the globe and lock in their vault until after the American remake has bowed? Tadpole is everything that is wrong with the current homeland cinema, as slight and immature as its title implies.. Grade: F

Other Awards:
Sundance Film Festival: Best Director (Dramatic)
National Board of Review: Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking

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