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[whitespace] 'Tadpole'
Stepmom's The Word: Young Oscar (Aaron Stanford) is fixated on his new stepmom (Sigourney Weaver) in 'Tadpole'--who wouldn't be?

Bebe on Board

Teenage philosopher or just plain pervert? It's hard to care in 'Tadpole.'

By Richard von Busack

LOUIS MALLE'S Murmur of the Heart was the first subtitled foreign film I saw. What drew in my 13-year-old self was the tiny photo of Lea Massari in the L.A. Times advertisement, lolling, raven-haired, looking away from the camera with humid eyes that would have liquefied any man, underage or otherwise.

What especially persists in the memory is the scene in which Laurent (Benoît Ferreux), a pampered 14-year-old with a crush on his Italian mother, Clara (Massari), lays out her lingerie on a bedspread. It's clear he hopes she'll magically materialize right into her underclothes.

The average 14-year-old is probably better off with the underwear, and not the lady wearing it. Still, Murmur of the Heart is a classic, if a somewhat gossamer one. Real life is a little more like David O. Russell's harsh but funny Spanking the Monkey, with a laid-up, manipulative mom and her sexual target: a numbed-out son who has abandoned all hope.

The film Tadpole arrives with a good chance of becoming this year's successful scandal. It was shot with a Sony HDCAM and was the big jackpot winner at Sundance 2002, being purchased by Miramax for $5 million. Tadpole tells a story of incest or, rather, step-incest, consisting as it does of 77 minutes of a young student in love with his stepmom, Eve. In Tadpole, the low technology meets the highest kind of cast, with Sigourney Weaver as Eve.

Oscar, a 15-year-old preppie (played by 23-year-old Aaron Stanford), is a young Manhattan genius raised in France. Still, he has a bad French accent that--take it from someone deeply ashamed of his French pronunciation--belies the time he's spent in a first-class boarding school.

The movie pines for a France where such relationships happen all the time. Ill-sorted and only slightly relevant quotes from Voltaire adorn the intertitles; director Gary Winick has said that these words were chosen at random from a book of familiar quotations. The script is co-written by Heather McGowan, a first-timer, and Niels Mueller, who worked with Winick on his drab drug-addiction film Sweet Nothing, which played at Cinequest in San Jose several years ago.

Except when he drinks, Oscar is the master of most situations. He's like a 15-year-old's conception of how slick a 15-year-old can be. During the Thanksgiving holidays, Oscar stays with his father, Stanley (John Ritter), and new stepmother. The lovelorn, touchy boy enjoys a night of sex--his first?--with Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), his mother's best friend, who seizes a moment when Oscar is drunk. The film chastely cuts away from this scene, but Neuwirth, who can channel Mae West levels of sleek lewdness, lets us know that everything went well.

Neuwirth played a character named Lilith on Cheers; Weaver plays a woman named Eve here. And while it's better to marry an Eve, in the movies you prefer a Lilith. And if we'd ever thought Oscar was a genius, he seems less so for churlishly panicking after a night in bed with Neuwirth. The film should have taken some kind of detour--here is a woman who could really give a young man a sentimental education.

Tadpole talks about romance, but it doesn't feel romantic. You're never sure that the love affair with the stepmom is a real love or just a stance, covering ... what? Lust? Revenge? No one mind's seeing a perennial clown like Ritter being cuckolded, yet Oscar appears to have a good enough rapport with him. Would it have made more sense if Oscar's father had been an intellectual bully and there were implications of a power struggle between the father and son?

Anyone who thinks this sort of strife couldn't be comedic doesn't know comedy. Ultimately, Miramax could have rereleased Murmur of the Heart for so much less money and so much more effect. Even Weaver isn't noteworthy here. Because of Winick's haphazard direction, she can't get a grip on how she's supposed to respond to the kid's protestations of unnatural love. Tadpole is a love letter to this great actress, but the letter comes back marked, "Not at This Address."

Tadpole (PG-13; 77 min.), directed by Gary Winick, written by Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller, photographed by Hubert Taczanowski and starring Sigourney Weaver, Bebe Neuwirth and Aaron Stanford, opens Friday at Camera 7 in Campbell and CinéArts in Palo Alto.

To contact Richard von Busack: rvonbusack at metronews dot com

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From the August 8-14, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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