REVIEW: How To Seduce Your Stepmom; Winick Wins with "Tadpole"
by Ray Pride
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This review originally ran in January 2002 as part of
indieWIRE's Sundance 2002 coverage.]
"Small yet perfectly formed," goes the joke, which perfectly suits "Tadpole," Gary Winick's tightrope-taut DV romantic comedy, just snatched up by Miramax for $5 million.
"Tadpole" is a deft, daft surprise, an exquisite, lighter-than-air romantic comedy, tidy and moral and filled with laughs. Winick's sixth feature is an exemplar of what Sundance offers at its sweetest moments: fresh voices telling artful tales that obliquely examine the world around us made with modest means, which turn out to be megabucks Cinderella stories for the filmmakers.
From France and elsewhere, we've become all too familiar with stories of middle-aged men and their younger paramours, but "Tadpole," written by longtime Winick pal Niels Muller and novelist Heather McGowan ("Schooling"), wreaks a Boy-lita version of the stereotype, with a 40-ish woman pursued by a 15-year-old adept, who just happens to be her stepson. Start with 'in loco parentis,' add in a loco, precocious literary minded-teen, stir.
Sensitive, French-speaking, Voltaire-quoting Oscar (a debuting Aaron Stanford, brimming with charm) is a sweet-tempered Holden Caulfield sort who hasn't found out about phonies yet, but knows much about older women. "You are a 40-year-old trapped in a 15-year-old's body," a girl his own age splutters at him. He comes home from his private school for a long Thanksgiving weekend, sparring with history professor dad Stanley (John Ritter) while quickly revealing his fixation on statuesque stepmom Sigourney Weaver. Blithe Bebe Neuwirth plays Diane, Eve's best friend, and she's pricelessly dry and wet at once as she admires -- then beds-- this sweet young thing. At a café the next day, as a table of Diane's pals admire Oscar to the point of devouring him, he has a line to match Mariel Hemingway's response in "Manhattan" when a guest asks her what she "does." "I go to high school," says Hemingway: Could Oscar make time for another of Diane's friends? "I'm pretty busy with midterms and all."
Stanford is consistently brilliant in a role that could easily play smug or brittle, but he's got gravitas without weariness, portraying fixation without becoming overbearing. Plus, he's damn cute. (Woody Allen has cast him in the upcoming "Hollywood Ending" for his second film role.)
The film has a fresh yet familiar voice of quotidian New York sophistication to go alongside Woody Allen in the 1970s, Michael Almereyda's underground classic "Another Girl, Another Planet" or even whip-smart fiction writers like Deborah Eisenberg and Francine Prose. "Tadpole" explores and resolves its premise as compactly and completely as it can, and the comedy is filled with the lucid cultural reportage and repartee we expect from short stories. The unending stream of jokes are rooted in behavior, and the many notions about pure love and the power of passion unsullied by domesticity sink in painlessly. (Watch for the older man reading Kundera in the back of a shot: this movie has much on its clever little mind.) For a fourteen-day shoot, "Tadpole" is a surprising--and gratifying--treasure, as slight (and sly) as a wink, as weighty as unrequited infatuation.
[Ray Pride is film editor of Chicago's Newcity. He is also a contributing editor of Filmmaker and Cinema Scope, and a filmmaker.]