(2002) *** Pg-13
78 min. Miramax. Director: Gary Winick. Cast: Aaron Stanford, Sigourney Weaver, John Ritter, Bebe Neuwirth, Robert Iler.

With clever writing and direction, the looseness afforded by shooting digital, and crack performances, Tadpole overcomes its essential slightness to become an amusingly cheery comedy about miserable people.

Aaron Stanford plays Oscar Grubman, the WASPy New York offspring of John Ritter's Stanley Grubman. Stanley and Oscar's best friend Charlie (Robert Iler of The Sopranos) pester Oscar about getting something going with a nice young girl his age, but Oscar harbors a secret crush...on his middle-age stepmother Eve (Sigourney Weaver). Matters farcically complicate when an unscheduled meeting with Eve's chiropractor friend Diane (Bebe Neuwirth) takes an unexpected turn.

Undeniably riffing on (and alluding to) The Graduate, the screenplay by Heather McGowan & Niels Mueller hits the right notes with simplicity and sensitivity for its likeably searching characters. Gary Winick adds a level of efficiency with his resourceful direction and nifty use of interstitial Voltaire title cards (though they sometimes seem randomly placed, they add thoughtful flavor and transitional punch). The photography has the foggy look of the digital-to-film transfer, but its a worthwhile trade-in for the film's easy charm and on-the-nose performances.

Stanford, in his debut film role, shows both heart and comic acuity, while reliable troopers Neuwirth and Ritter do some of their sharpest film work. In the pivotal and tricky role of the sexy stepmom, Weaver is all class, dancing with Stanford through words and looks; her reactions range from bemused to sympathetic to aching.

Winick, McGowan, and Mueller prove able to reinvigorate a tired May-December premise through observant character comedy. Tadpole isn't profound (at 78 minutes--including substantial credit rolls on either end--it barely seems to be there), but it does eke out a reasonably convincing--and not entirely dismissive--message about the nature of obsession in the transitional periods of our lives. In what amounts to as much a breakthrough for Winick as Stanford, Tadpole's a heartfelt and laugh-filled crowd-pleaser.

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