Review: Tadpole

Just to clear the air, I don't hate Tadpole, a movie that everybody else in the world seems to love.

And by "everybody else in the world," I'm basically referring to the small but mighty coven of de facto tastemakers who swarm annually at the Sundance Film Festival, and to the somewhat larger number of folks who frequent what used to be called arthouse movie theatres around the country.

Anyway, lots of people apparently love Tadpole, and there's a good chance you will too. It's a warm puppy of a movie that cries out for love. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

By way of history, Gary Winick, the movie's director, walked away with boatloads of kudos and a big prize or two at Sundance, where the film occasioned one of those infamous studio bidding wars that used to break out at the drop of a cell phone just a few short years ago. The Sundance buzz snowballed into the better-than-respectable box office that Tadpole is currently doing around the country, and I've already had one or two friendly arguments with acquaintances and family members who claim to have been surprised and delighted by it.

Again, let me repeat: I do not hate this movie. I actually enjoyed parts of it very much and often found myself smiling, even at those moments when it was all too clear that the filmmaker was laying on the cutesy-hip shtick way too thick or manipulating the audience in any number of other, equally blatant ways. This is a film that has its way with you, whether you're game or not.

I don't hate Tadpole. I'm just not convinced by it.

Tadpole is a sweet, small, basically honest film filled with good performances, gentle humor, a just slightly kinky edge and what appears to be a surplus of effortless, natural charm. The movie was shot quickly, in just 14 days, on digital video, and a large part of its appeal (not to mention its marketing campaign) revolves around its rejection of big-studio slickness and its less-is-more ethos. Director Winick is reportedly a big fan of the Dogme anti-school of filmmaking, and that influence is worn proudly on the movie's sleeve. It's only one of any number of influences that the movie seems to have swallowed whole and incompletely digested, like a python with a good-size baby wildebeest stuck in its throat (or whatever passes for a throat in a python).

Part of my problem with Tadpole is that the film, like so many of the Dogme productions it professes to admire, is not nearly so natural or so modest and unassuming as it appears. At a brief 77-minute running time, Tadpole is barely a feature at all, but that doesn't stop it from being enormously full of itself. The film is a sketch, with all the limitations of a sketch (most of its characters are unfinished connect-the-dots), but with many of the pretensions of a years-in-the-making, self-proclaimed objet d'art.

The dilemma of Tadpole begins and ends with its title character, otherwise known as Oscar Grubman, a 15-year-old boarding school brat who's old beyond his years (he's a 40-year-old trapped in a 15-year-old's body, as all his acquaintances are fond of saying). Oscar is the sort of fellow who would never think of saying he's "tired" when he had the opportunity to use the word "fatigued." He's the sort of guy who reads Voltaire on the train and underlines key passages (the movie is in fact chapter-marked with pithy quotes from the V-man — a device that ultimately becomes as annoying as it is precious). When a young girl on the train flirts a bit with Oscar, he's rude and rejects her outright. He does this because, as he later tells a friend, "She has hands lacking experience, like a child."

Oscar has his eye on bigger and better things, bigger and better ideas, bigger and better women. Oscar craves experience and looks everywhere for it (or at least as close to "everywhere" as a pampered preppie from the Upper East Side is likely to look). For his troubles, he gets his wallet stolen (by a chanteuse with beautiful hands, no less). In short order, Oscar gets fall-down drunk, and then falls (literally) onto the massage table and, eventually, into the bed of his stepmother's best gal pal, a freespirited 40-ish chiropractor named Diane (Bebe Neuwirth, who's very nearly the best thing about the movie).

The next morning, Oscar's upset about sleeping with mom's friend, but not for the reasons you might expect. As it happens, the real object of Oscar's unrequited desire is none other than his stepmother herself (Sigourney Weaver). It's this slightly naughty, older woman/younger man scenario that drives the slight but amusing, occasionally poignant and sometimes just plain silly series of moments that passes for a narrative in Tadpole. (It's actually not quite as naughty as it might have been; Aaron Stanford, the actor who plays young Oscar, is really in his early 20s.)

Oscar's a tadpole not just in nickname only. He's a frog-in-waiting, dying to become a prince when he finally lands that one magical-mystical kiss from Ms. Right — who just happens to be 25 years his senior and his father's wife.

Among the most nagging problems in Tadpole is that we never get a real sense of why Eve, Oscar's stepmom, should constitute such a vision of romantic perfection for this seemingly smart, sensitive boy. Weaver's all but wasted in this shamefully underwritten role, a character only remotely understandable if we're charitable enough to assume she's supposed to exist merely as some sort of idealized obsession for Oscar, like Bo Derek's corn-rowed goddess in 10. For what it's worth, Weaver at least comes off better than the movie's adult males, most of whom are hastily conceived cartoons, and all of whom contain more than a touch of the clueless buffoon.

Oscar, for his part, is only slightly more sympathetic. Part prodigy, part snob, and more than a bit of a nebbish, the closest correlation to Oscar, movie-wise, would be Rushmore's Max Fischer crossed with the adolescent Antoine Doinel character from Truffaut's films. Oscar's not as obnoxious as Max Fischer, true, but neither is he is as interesting or as funny — and that goes for the movie as well. Tadpole is charming, energetic and often very appealing, but it's hardly original. Rushmore Lite is only one of the less-than-flattering descriptions that might come to mind.

As for the Doinel resemblance, there's an awful lot of the French New Wave to be found in Tadpole, and that's probably one of the main reasons that so many people like the film so much. (The irony here is that many of the movie's admirers are probably not even aware that Tadpole's basic shtick entails the paying of homage.) The film's soundtrack is constantly evoking French cabaret music, several of the characters parlent francais at the drop of a hat, and the whole movie often seems to be taking place in some gentle limbo where Paris has been cross-fertilized with the Upper East Side of Manhattan. During one particularly lyrical fantasy sequence, there's even a brief shot of a red balloon floating heavenward, evoking Albert Lamorisse's classic short, making the French connection so clear it's practically transparent.

Taking a cue from all those French comedies that also work as serious drama, Tadpole maintains an interesting frisson by constantly skirting the edges of silly farce without actually teetering into the abyss. The no-frills style and self-important references seem to constantly hint at the possibility that the movie somehow means more than it does — which it doesn't — but, happily, that doesn't make it any less appealing.

Like so many other films by smart, self-absorbed filmmakers (particularly smart, self-absorbed first-time filmmakers), Winick fills Tadpole with sincere but somewhat clumsy nods to movies, places and ideas — but mostly movies — that have left their mark on the filmmaker. "This is all so The Graduate," says one of the movie's characters at one point. And so it is. Tadpole shows a lot of promise, though, and hopefully next time Winick will give us more.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.