‘Tadpole’ swims against mainstream

It’s nearly impossible to escape the sexuality of older actresses these days. “The Graduate” remains all the rage on Broadway, while magazines applaud the uncommonly successful later careers of women like Susan Sarandon and Rene Russo and the sensual, mature characters these actresses are hired to portray.

Of course, “The Graduate” also happens to star Jason Biggs, the erstwhile enthusiast of the titular confection in “American Pie.” Needless to say, the addition of the acronym “MILF” into the national lexicon probably isn’t the exact thing all those newspaper and magazine editors found so laudable. As always, there is a disconnect between perception and reality in Hollywood.

Into the breach, then, goes “Tadpole,” which tries very hard to find that middle ground between Mrs. Robinson and Stifler’s Mom. To a certain extent, the film is extraordinarily successful – this is a comedy about a brilliant 15-year-old prep school kid who has fallen madly in love with his stepmother, and it is one that manages not to be incredibly insulting or excessively insipid.

For that certain comedic blend, “Tadpole” recruits help from the best in the business – the wit and wisdom of Voltaire is peppered throughout the film and is in fact one of the great passions of the young etudiant Oscar (Aaron Stanford). Fluent in French and fed up with the immaturity of his female peers, Oscar has decided to forgo the normal romantic life of a teen, and instead he fixates on Eve (Sigourney Weaver), his stepmother.

Who could blame him? Eve is unto a goddess in the film, a brilliant medical researcher and a radiant personality; her continuing thirst for all that life has to offer intrigues and attracts the teen. “Joie de vivre” seems to be the ideal virtue of both Oscar and the film itself, and so by anyone’s standards, Eve is a very special woman. It’s just an unhappy coincidence that she happened to end up with Oscar’s dad (John Ritter).

In a film such as this, though, it’s a sure bet that little can end happily ever after. “Your life is like some Greek tragedy,” Oscar’s friend Charlie (Robert Iler) tells him, and the movie makes just about no illusions about it. “Tadpole” could be mistaken for one big bacchanal, as the constant influence of wine and parties steers the characters into their unfortunate paths. This is apparent from the outset, at least for the protagonist – drunk and unhappy after a night of disappointing encounters, he manages to be consoled in the best way possible by Eve’s best friend Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), a chiropractor with hands and lips that could melt any man’s heart.

But not Oscar’s. Horrified by his youthful indiscretion, he demands nothing less than complete non-disclosure on the part of Diane, who seems to agree with him at the time. Neuwirth’s mischievous eyes, however, foreshadow the inevitable breaking of that promise and the subsequent escapades that ensue. One by one, with groups and parties, over coffee and bottles of chianti, the bond of silence breaks down, and the affair becomes apparent. In the aftermath, Oscar’s affection for Eve is unwittingly revealed, which permits the film to take the viewer through a multitude of emotional highs and lows en route to the finish.

Inspiration throughout for director Gary Winick has come from both high and low, but is clearly of the best quality. Oedipus aside, Winick certainly has his share of fun with the teen angle – Oscar’s vision of Eve’s entrance to the Thanksgiving party pays homage to the immortal Phoebe Cates scene in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” while Winick contrives to interrupt Oscar’s Eve-centered daydreams by smacking him in the face with a tennis ball. Few will be able to impugn the performances given by this talented cast. Stanford, to be seen next in “X-Men 2,” brings a sublimely intelligent air to his character, if not the wisdom that the film may have been shooting for. Weaver and Neuwirth are excellent in their roles, projecting a certifiable air of sensuality and charge that enlivens the film throughout. Even John Ritter does well as the clueless, mundane father figure – the Thanksgiving party in the opening scene was every bit as bland and pointless as I imagine a party hosted by Ritter would be, albeit without the hoped-for visit from Mr. Roper.

My sole hang-up with the film is somewhat individual – I think it’s sort of weird that Weaver has a teen son named Oscar from the Upper West Side that falls in love with her, exactly thirteen years after Weaver’s infant son Oscar was kidnapped from the Upper West Side by an evil Carpathian ghost in “Ghostbusters II.”  Admit it – that’s pretty weird. Peter MacNicol was even involved, which creeps me out even more.

Nonetheless, “Tadpole” deserves more than a fair chance. Those seeking an intelligent, engaging comedy of manners could do far worse than to give this film a shot. And should you be in search of a mature, sexy character played by an older actress, Weaver is clearly what you’re looking for – she’s definitely a MILF.