Starring Aaron Stanford, Bebe Neuwirth, Sigourney Weaver, John Ritter, and Robert Iler Written by Heather MacGowan, Niels Mueller, and Gary Winick. Directed by Gary Winick
“Those that can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
This movie is a must-see, highly underrated farce based on the absurd notion that a precocious young man might be more attracted to his stepmother than to his angelic Lolita-like classmate, Miranda, who is always there when he needs her.
Did you get the quote? It's by Voltaire, of course, the Enlightenment wit
Our movie hero, Oscar Grubman (aptly played by newcomer Aaron Stanford), is a Voltaire scholar. He's in the midst of metamorphosis from a gawky prep-schooler to a gawky adult. And as he becomes a frog, you know he will be kissed into princeship along the way.
“John Ritter plays an overstuffed, pompous prof to perfection—I couldn't help feeling he'll soon be named to a CTEP panel of experts.”
Thanksgiving vacation sophomore year is just the time for his genius to sprout into love and obsession for none other than his stepmom, Eve, the eternal woman, played by Sigourney Weaver. Ms. Weaver has the ability to disarm any man at anytime, no doubt, but in this instance she plays a research scientist studying the heart, no less.
“Love shows signs that cannot be mistaken” is the first bon mot that appears as a billboard as Oscar, his friend Charlie (“The Sopranos” Robert Iler), and Miranda (Kate Mara) trundle home from tony Chauncey Academy, somewhere up the Hudson.
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The tableau of the Hudson Valley in fall is breathtaking. Some have objected to the Sony HD-CAM format used here, but despite my technocratic background, the textures of the film were, if anything, enhanced, the color and sequences smooth, and the usual handheld fears of jerkiness not at all evident.
The trio are en route to a memorable Thanksgiving, and for Oscar, a coming-of-age experience that rivals Dustin Hoffman's in “The Graduate.”
Oscar's pretentiousness is a bit absurd, but when you meet his father, Professor Stanley Grubman (John Ritter), and hear that his mother was French, in which he is also fluent, you suspend disbelief and realize his attitude is inherited.
Professor Grubman has the entire department of history faculty over for Thanksgiving dinner, toasting an apology to the Native Americans.
Ritter is adorned with facial hair and a spare tire, always the high-brow academic. He plays the over-stuffed, pompous prof to perfection. I couldn't help thinking I had met him at a Cooperative Group Meeting somewhere along the way—I expect he'll soon be named to a CTEP panel of experts.
“It's not enough to conquer, one must know how to seduce.” Eve's best friend from college is Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), a chiropractor, who flirts with Oscar, telling him to drop the “Miss” and call her Diane.
“If God did not exist, he would need to be invented” is perhaps the most-quoted Voltaire phrase. As Voltaire was the Enlightenment philosopher and lover of reason, he would marvel at our recent obsession with pedophilia. We are amused by Oscar's mooning over his stepmom, but his eventual loss of innocence with Diane after a night of too many drinks is dealt with in this PG-rated film as if it were part of the joke.
Was anyone really taking advantage of Oscar, or was Oscar more mature than any of the adults?
“The progress of rivers to the ocean is not so rapid as man to error.” Oscar awakes the next day, and Phil, Diane's endodontist convenience, thinks he's had an early appointment for an adjustment.
Oscar, in a neurotic frenzy, says goodbye to Diane and swears her to secrecy. Diane meets friends for lunch and spills the beans before Oscar gets home.
“One must cultivate their garden.” Oscar is met en route by dad, not at all disappointed but more curious as to where his son spent the night.
“Common sense is not so common.” Oscar is actually quite uncommon and considerate. He plots to bring lunch to Eve at her laboratory. Walking through Central Park, he spies her as she listens to a medieval costumed minstrel, playing a madrigal on his lute.
The film gauzes over with obvious fantasy as the minstrel becomes Oscar….a dreamy, horse-drawn carriage ride through the park…Eve and Oscar enjoying each other and champagne.
Back to reality: The Lab. If this movie were real, they would be doing molecular biology, cloning a gene, discovering a new transduction path, or saying something about oncogenes.
Instead she deals with “cardiac myocytes,” noting, “The heart is simple, fixing it is complicated.”
Egad, too bad the metaphor wasn't cancer. “The heart is no more than a pump, who needs to use it as a symbol?” Oscar is moved by the poetry of “pericardium,” “aorta,” and “mitral.” They decide that perhaps the liver or the kidney might be a more modern love organ. Common sense is not so common.
Panic sets in when Oscar realizes that Diane will be at dinner. He rushes to the café to un-invite her, but winds up charming her coterie of intimates, who all know where Oscar was the night before.
He lectures, he entertains, he amuses, he charms—he can have any one of them if he wants, but all he wants is Eve. There are some very humorous interludes when he learns that Eve loves Elvis and his sideburns. Later, at Charlie's house, the object of his affection is revealed.
Well Paced, Utterly Entertaining
The scenes are well paced, and utterly entertaining as Oscar sinks into despair that his love and indiscretion will be known.
The dinner scene begins with near disaster. Miranda is there with her dad, and nearly gets quizzed by Professor Grubman (double embarrassment!)
Oscar is freshly shaven and sporting new sideburns—glued on at Charlie's house. He is so uptight he's about to uncoil. Diane promises not to drink, but alas she has a few.
Oscar announces his intention to study pre-med. “I'm not doing badly in biology. I know what an isotope is.” (I was the only one in the audience laughing at that one.)
When asked if he would not be better off to pursue history, the arts, be like his dad, he replies, “Does the world really need another academic?”(something I am increasingly asking myself these days).
“Cherish the truth, pardon error.” Diane and Eve have a heart-to-heart about whether Dianne took advantage of poor Oscar. This could have been formulaic or preachy, but it struck enlightened tones that Voltaire himself would be proud of.
Oscar, the smart, sweet, passionate lad was excited about life. The scene ends as we see the sculpture of Alice in Wonderland, with the Cheshire cat grinning in our head.
“This movie is funny, it is sweet, it is passionate, it is on target.”
“Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” Oscar and Eve have a memorable tennis match, with such lines as “Love-30—as if you know what love is,” and “Fifteen -40—that's a ratio you seem to like.”
“If we do not find things pleasant, at least we'll find something new.”Perhaps a catchphrase for those of us working in lung cancer with the so-called new drugs, but this is the final quote from Voltaire as Charlie, Oscar, and Miranda catch a train back to school.
‘Go See It!’
Some observers have claimed that this movie has not found its audience, but the audience is us! Go see it, or at least rent it.
I saw it at the one art house in Charleston and managed to see it twice before making it my inaugural choice for this column.
“Tadpole” is funny, it is sweet, it is passionate, it is on target.
It speaks for today and tomorrow's coming-of-age crowd better than “The Graduate” did for me at the time. Aaron Sanford plays this part exceptionally well, and perhaps will fare as well as Dustin Hoffman did.
Bebe Neuwirth was just about perfect as Diane. She had me in stitches as much as she had Oscar apoplectic.
Why the critics haven't loved this movie more is beyond me.
Some Words about Voltaire
I confess that it has also been a trigger for me to pursue Voltaire.
He was born François Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694; the name Voltaire is a pen name. He was a cuspy Sagittarius like my wife, sister, and father.
I haven't enjoyed epigrams as much since reading the other Oscar—Wilde that is: “A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”
© 2002 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.