Published July 25, 2002
There is an odd asymmetry in Tadpole, an ambitious coming-of-age flick directed by Gary Winick. On the one hand, it adopts the conventional movie view of female sexual adventuresses, just as if sex were, as the ideologically pure still insist it is, the same for men and women. On the other hand, its story of an older woman sexually preying on a 15-year-old boy is treated as pure comedy, even though everyone in the audience must understand that if the woman were a man and the boy were a girl or, even more shockingly, a boy, no comedy would even conceivably have been attempted, let alone attempted with any hope of success. I myself, as the reader may possibly guess, am inclined to the view that sex is not the same for men and women and, therefore, that it is comedy in such a story, but I long for the innocent days of The Graduate, when no one doubted that Mrs. Robinson was at best pathetic and at worst evil, and not a sort of role model for middle-aged women.
Her equivalent in Tadpole, Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), takes advantage not only of the hero, Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford) and Oscar’s displaced passion for his stepmother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver) but also of her own close friendship with Eve and Oscar’s father, Stanley (John Ritter) a liberal-minded professor who introduces his Thanksgiving toast with an apology to American Indians. Not that Eve and Stanley mind. Though surprised, they are hardly outraged when they discover Oscar’s relationship with Diane, and the movie’s publicists are so confident of its audience’s view of the matter as just good, clean fun that they are sending out press releases of indescribable vulgarity to publicize the results of a poll to celebrate what they call “National Tadpole Week.” Some remarkable number of respondents report a relationship in their own past like that of Oscar and Diane, and the publicists encourage the use of “tadpoling” as a verb meaning the pursuit of such relationships.
If like Donna Britt, a columnist for the Washington Post, you are inclined to applaud these efforts, I can have nothing more to say to you on the subject, but for everyone else the tastelessness of the ad campaign is reflected in the tastelessness of the movie. For one thing, Oscar is not nearly so likable as passive, mixed-up Benjamin in The Graduate. A sophomore at a fancy prep school called Chauncey, he is an insufferable prig. Fluent in French (his absent mother was French), he is an enthusiast for Voltaire, and the movie is punctuated with little quotations from that worthy (in translation) on cards between the scenes. He is constantly talking about Voltaire and other French authors among his parents’ friends as if he is used to being petted and told how brilliant he is. The film-makers think so too, and that his reading somehow makes him mature enough for an affair with a 40-year-old woman.
When we first meet him on the train with his friend Charlie (Robert Iler from The Sopranos), he is spurning the advances of a charming coeval, Miranda Spear (Kate Mara), who is said to be “hot for” him. Likewise, the daughter of a family friend, Daphne (Alicia Van Couvering), seems to like him, but Oscar has no time for her either.. Instead, as he at length confides in Charlie, he himself is “hot for” his stepmother, Eve. It is because Diane is wearing Eve’s scarf, that Oscar is said to have yielded to her sexual importunities — which, on her side, seem even more absurd. What on earth does this uncommonly attractive woman want with the sexual attentions of a spotty schoolboy anyway? She explains to Eve that Oscar is “not just a fifteen-year-old but a smart, sweet passionate person” and tells her that “if you hadn’t met someone in a really long time who was really excited about life, you would consider a fifteen year old.”
Excited about life, eh? I think I have a pretty good idea just what sort of life he was excited about. But let us stipulate that the one-night stand between Oscar and Diane leads to some comic outcomes, or what would be comic outcomes if one were not constantly reminding oneself that, although the kid is being given grown-up things to say, he is still 15 years old. The point isn’t really about Oscar’s sexual education, but about Diane’s discovery of a new and exciting way to be “transgressive.” That’s why we find her in the immediate aftermath of her conquest sitting around a table with several girlfriends (that is women of about 40, like her) whom she has already obviously told about her sleeping with Oscar in such a way that now they want to sleep with him too. This is obviously meant to be funny.
Under such circumstances, it is not immediately clear why the next logical step into transgressiveness, an affair between Oscar and his much lusted-after stepmother, is eschewed. Eve declines to his live up to the reputation of her namesake, apart from indulging herself in one passionate kiss with her stepson before pulling back in response, perhaps, to some obscure inward imperative or echo of incest which suggests that this is a transgression too far. But the film-makers are not interested in the voice of conscience, if there is one anywhere in all these goings on. And there is not the slightest moral overtone as Oscar in the aftermath of the kiss is left to reflect: “Well, it wasn’t as important as I thought it was” — and concludes that there might be something to interest him in Miranda Spear after all. All’s well that ends well, I guess.
But a little critical distance, which is what Hollywood almost never has in sexual matters, might have suggested another way to go. To Daphne, for example, Oscar says, “I don’t go in much for contemporary pop music,” and when Daphne tries to persuade him that it is normal to be interested in cpm she says: “Oscar, you’re like a 40 year old in a fifteen year old’s body.” Now here are what might have been some interesting thoughts to do with the youth culture and what “normal” means and whether having a serious attitude to life is necessary associated with being 40 any more than having a frivolous one is associated with being 15, but nothing further is done with this, or with the implication that it is more shocking for a 15 year-old to think like a 40 year-old than for a 40 year-old like Diane to think like a 15 year-old. But that’s the world we’re living in, folks!