Tadpole (2002)


Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford) heads home from prep school for Thanksgiving full of anticipation. As he rides the train with his classmate Charlie (Robert Iler), they lay out typical 15-year-old plans — Oscar has a particular girl in mind, someone, he says, he’s “known for a while.” He won’t say her name, but drops that she’ll be at the Upper East Side party hosted by his father, Stanley (John Ritter), a Columbia Asian history professor. As it turns out, she has good reason to be there: she’s the co-host, dad’s wife, Eve (Sigourney Weaver).

The crush is wholly understandable. Eve is wonderful in every way, a medical researcher who specializes in the workings of the (so metaphorical) heart. Witty, warm, and beautiful, she even moves in poetic slow motion as Oscar gazes on her from across the room, removing her red cashmere scarf as if it’s a heavenly vestment. She is also, to Oscar’s keen eye, slightly melancholy, unfulfilled in some vague way. Her best friend Diane (wonderful, sharp Bebe Neuwirth) confirms Oscar’s feeling when she observes that Eve has a “void, something missing.”

Determined to prove he’s the one to fill that void, Oscar is at first frustrated by serial distractions (Eve has other people to talk to, Stanley sets him up with a colleague’s daughter), until, at evening’s end, he takes himself to a bar to drown his sorrow. The bartender serves him and a lovely young woman hits on him. In another movie, we’d probably be deep inside Oscar’s fantasy-world here, but that’s not quite the case in Tadpole. As written by Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller and directed by Gary Winick (who made the under-seen The Tic Code), this look at one teen’s ostensibly urgent desires takes a mostly blithe approach. The boy’s perspective shapes his world, and the movie never asks that he — or you — question that perspective.

When Oscar, precocious and privileged, sees his life collapsing around his ears, the film takes his point of view, with appropriate and convenient embellishments. When it’s convenient to abandon that point of view — to reinforce it — the movie does that too. And when it looks as though Oscar’s perspective might possibly need adjusting — like maybe he’s not quite the answer to dissatisfied 40ish women’s sexual and emotional longings — well, the movie doesn’t allow for that possibility at all. Oscar is that answer, because the women in the movie only exist to make him seem so.

This begins when, on his self-pitying way home from the bar, he runs into Diane, who takes him home to sober up. A chiropractor, she has a table in her apartment. She also happens to have borrowed Eve’s red scarf, the one that so paused Oscar’s heart earlier that evening. As he rests on the table, his face hanging down through the head-hole, he glimpses the scarf; it appears from his point of view, frame, deliriously alluring. His back only partly unknotted, Oscar lurches to his feet, leans heavily against Diane, and before you know it, they’re in bed.

Oscar is unsurprisingly mortified in the morning: he has one of those standard roll-over-in-bed-and-spot-your-lover’s-face moments, his eyes pop open, and he essays an escape, only to run into “Phil, the boyfriend” in her kitchen. Double entendres linking sex to chiropractics ensue. Oscar swears Diane to secrecy, believing news of the tryst will ruin his chances with Eve. The rest of the film follows his efforts to contain Diane’s relatively lackadaisical attitude and flirt with Eve. Stanley remains mostly on the sidelines, until a father-son heart-to-heart reveals to them both that perhaps they need to talk more.

In assuming Oscar’s perspective, the film makes out like everyone is as smitten with him as he is, admiring his perfect French (his unseen mother is French, living in France, “exotic”), his charming gravity, his self-righteousness, and his predilection for Voltaire, whom he quotes often and the film quotes even more often, in preciously ironic inter-titles, as in, “Every man is guilty of all the good he didn’t do,” or again, “Reason consists of always seeing things as they are.” Diane introduces him round to her girlfriends as a delightful confection, unusually passionate, suitably deferential, and, apparently, a good lay. Oscar sits among them during a brunch, holding forth on some deep philosophical point, or at least a point that seems deep to a 15-year-old. The women cluck and coo; one gives him her number.

Just why women who appear to be accomplished and independent might find this self-doting child so enchanting is a question the film can’t ask, because it’s a question that does not occur to Oscar. And such moments, however self-conscious, only underline its too-cuteness, as do various set-pieces (cleverly shot, intimate and also elusive, on digital video by Hubert Taczanowski): Oscar and Eve discuss poetry and passion in her lab, with repeated references to “the heart”; the four principals do an upscale restaurant dinner, Diane drinking to excess and Oscar so desperate to impress Eve that he’s glued on sideburns, having heard that she liked Elvis when she was younger — when she kisses him near the bathroom, she returns to the table with a sideburn stuck to her face. Of course, the truth comes out, voices are raised, and Oscar, so sincere and so persistent, almost convinces Eve that he might fill her “void.”

While Oscar’s point of view can encompass poignant and ridiculous moments, the film retreats from the emotional edge set by the film to which it has been most often compared, The Graduate. In fact, Tadpole doesn’t leave the comparison to chance: angry at her friend for sleeping with her Eve does learn of the scandalous liaison, Diane tries to mollify her, observing, “It’s all very The Graduate.” Eve snarks back, “Except Oscar hasn’t graduated.” Yet, despite her protestations, Eve leaves this conversation more confused about her own feelings concerning her stepson.

This scene stands out (with a couple of others), with action that Oscar can’t know or witness, but might well imagine. Tadpole initially poses provocative questions about relationships or responsibilities: is Oscar “an adult, or close enough,” as Diane says? Are middle-aged women so needy that a 15-year-old looks good? Is Stanley as clueless as he seems? But rather than letting them hang, disturbingly, it falls back on an attitude more smug than challenging. Worst of all, it closes with Oscar back on the train to school, reconciled with a future involving girls “his own age.” If this is the primary lesson he’s learned, it only highlights how shallow he’s been all along. And when the movie closes on this cozy image, accompanied by Bowie’s “Changes,” no less, it highlights just how shallow it’s been, as well.