A Manhattan Gem

In a summer of brain-dead popcorn flicks dedicated to the premise that some people will endure anything to buy two hours of air-conditioning, it’s a pleasure to discover a few small nuggets of truth in the rockpile. Go ahead and lose a few I.Q. points shoveling what the Crocodile Hunter calls “poo” ( Minority Report , The Bourne Identity , Mr. Deeds , Hey Arnold! , Scooby Doo and the moronic Men in Black II ). Waste your time on flying dragons and Powerpuff Girls. You’ll find me lining up for a second helping of Road to Perdition and reveling in the crisp, cool seductiveness of a new gem called Tadpole .

Despite those dreaded words that plague so many bad independent movies these days (“Big Hit at Sundance!”), Tadpole would be a surprise hit with any audience anywhere that still cares about character development, good acting, careful, literate scriptwriting and stylish filmmaking on a shoestring. Its only purpose is to tell a simple story entertainingly and thoroughly, and it knows how to keep a promise with precision. Best of all, it’s only 75 minutes long. My kind of movie.

Tadpole is the nickname for a prep-school sophomore named Oscar Grubman (mercifully, no relation to Lizzie), a bright kid with raging hormones, neatly parted hair, clean fingernails and high expectations. In addition to being fluent in French, quoting Voltaire and ordering gourmet muck from expensive New York menus, Oscar has high expectations for life and his emerging libido. He’s only interested in older women. Oscar is 15. The movie follows him through one adventurous weekend during a family Thanksgiving on Central Park West. It isn’t dull. Sensitive? Compassionate? Where are the 15-year-olds like Oscar? O.K., maybe it’s Sex and the City revisited by the Brothers Grimm. But if Tadpole is a fairy tale, it’s a pleasant one. The parallels to The Graduate are obvious, but I think there’s more to this slender tome than meets the eye. If an updated, socially aware J.D. Salinger suddenly surfaced from literary exile to publish a brand-new story, Tadpole would be it.

Oscar (played by fresh, attractive new kid on the block Aaron Stanford) can’t help mooning over “older babes.” His father (John Ritter) is a history professor at Columbia who is so nerdy he makes a formal apology to Native Americans before carving the Thanksgiving turkey-but as undeserving as he is, he has managed to snag a real dish of his own in Oscar’s stepmother, Eve (a splendid Sigourney Weaver). Oscar’s resentment builds into a state of tortured melancholia the minute he lands at Grand Central Terminal for the holidays: Dad is such a dork, and Eve is such a doll! To make matters worse, Eve’s friends are fortysomethings in Manolo Blahnik pumps and Judith Leiber handbags who dress up museum benefits, lunch at Le Cirque, and know how to tempt a guy into entertaining lewd thoughts that would banish an altar boy to purgatory six ways from Sunday. Struggling to resolve his crush on his stepmother, Oscar turns glum. One night after too many Scotch mists, he gets seduced himself-by Eve’s best friend Diane (foxy Bebe Neuwirth). This is actually easier than he imagined, since Diane is a chiropractor who works wonders on his, uh, pinched nerve. But Diane is a sexually liberated adventuress (East Side, you know) who can’t keep a secret from her carnivorous gal pals, and before you can say “Mrs. Robinson,” Oscar becomes the twink du jour-a Thanksgiving condiment hotter than cranberry sauce. When Eve finds out, comic complications ensue. By the time he drags his backpack and Ralph Lauren muffler back to boarding school, Oscar has graduated into an old boy of experience with everything but a Dunhill pipe and a camel-hair cardigan to get him through what promises to be a very boring semester indeed.

Tadpole has the rumpled, dog-eared page marks of a New Yorker short story on film-meticulously constructed, intelligently conceived, neatly composed and pointless after the final fade. Still, it’s a refreshing change from the bloated, hysterical summer junk we’re accustomed to, and it leaves a feel-good twinkle in the eye. The director is Gary Winick, a film professor at N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts who specializes in neatly structured indie-prods shot on digital video. The results are usually cheap, fast and grainy, but Tadpole ‘s creamy transfer to 35-millimeter has a seamless texture that belies its technical limitations and modest budget. It’s got the style of a creative-writing term paper, unfolding in paragraphs separated by unnecessary and obnoxious subheadings (“Every man is guilty of all the good he didn’t do”; “The composition of a tragedy requires testicles”) that grow increasingly juvenile, even if they are from Voltaire. Let’s face it-Candide was a boob, too.

But nothing dilutes the cumulative effect of the finely tuned performances, the smart Manhattan observations and the absence of movie clichés about teenagers. Oscar is a sophisticated kid who is just a little bit different, and most of the adults around him have enough common sense to know it. Sigourney Weaver has never been better. Bewildered by and attracted to her stepson at the same time, she balances mature responsibility with womanly intuition in delightfully flavored doses. Bebe Neuwirth is a salty, likable lynx. John Ritter doesn’t have a clue as the self-absorbed doofus who never knows what’s going on in the next room. And Aaron Stanford is more than just a camera who records the world around him; he’s a real participant in a striped rep tie who is only just learning how to live. Tadpole has no big laughs, no revelatory thrills, no sudden violence. It’s just a charming slice of New York life that comes perilously close to perfection.

A P.C. Fairy Tale

If Tadpole is a Voltaire valentine, then Pumpkin is political correctness by Hans Christian Anderson. It’s about the unique transformation of a whole sorority of coiffed and manicured chowderheads on a California college campus through the innocent, warm-hearted magic of a retarded kid named Pumpkin. In a stop-at-nothing attempt to win the Sorority of the Year trophy, a pampered princess from Pasadena named Carolyn (Christina Ricci, of all people) adopts a needy charity-coaching handicapped athletes in a sporting event for the mentally and physically challenged. Dimwitted Carolyn is forced to overcome her desire for beauty and perfection and fight her socially ingrained prejudices when she becomes the mentor of the neglected, disenfranchised, wheelchair-bound Pumpkin. Urging him to walk, teaching him to dance, taking him to the beach-the challenges are ruining her senior year as a blond sorority babe, not to mention her romance with the hunky campus tennis hero. Before it’s over, don’t you know, superficial Carolyn falls for sensitive, sweet Pumpkin and throws away her false values for true, unconditional love-to the horror of her wicked sorority sisters, her vain and self-deluded boyfriend, her humiliated parents, shocked teachers and campus advisers, and even Pumpkin’s mortified mother (Brenda Blethyn). One conscious decision to show compassion wrecks her life, but this is a movie: In the end, all of the bigots see the error of their ways at the Special Olympics and pay for their mistakes, while Carolyn and Pumpkin stagger away into the bleachers like Dorothy and the straw-stuffed Scarecrow. Everyone applauds-after all, Pumpkin has just won the marathon.

If you believe any of this, I can make you a real deal on leftover Enron stock that will double in value a week from Friday. Pouty Christina Ricci has played so many sluts and addicts in her young career that it’s impossible to buy her as a blond sweater-girl with a brain the size of a hazelnut. She is criminally miscast here, and wasted, too. Overwhelmed by the crappiest musical soundtrack of the year, cut off at the knees by not one but two lame directors who should stick to beer commercials (Adam Larson Broder and Tony Abrams), and photographed in cruel closeups, Ms. Ricci looks like a mugging victim. Even worse, Hank Harris, the frail, pubescent actor who plays the retarded object of her affection, looks half her age. In the clinches, I had impure thoughts about Great Danes mounting baby chipmunks.

Field Day for Kaye Ballard

Kaye Ballard has been fracturing the people for six decades with a heart, a talent and a wicked sense of humor as big as her girdle, but she has never been more irresistible than she is this summer at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass. The new play she’s in is Quartet , by the distinguished playwright Ronald ( The Dresser ) Harwood; the director is Tony Award–winner Vivian Matalon, and the other stars in the four-member cast are Robert Vaughn, Paul Hecht and Broadway’s original Irma la Douce, the great Elizabeth Seal. What are you waiting for?

Quartet is about four addled, cranky, eccentric, exasperating but adorable old opera singers living in a retirement home for musicians who have seen better days. When a new CD is released of their ancient recording of Rigoletto , it occasions a reluctant reunion to recreate their famous quartet from Act III, Scene 1, in celebration of Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday gala. Since they’ve all lost their voices, the resulting pandemonium brings egomania to dizzying new heights of hilarious rapture.

The four stars-full of pills and rage and sporting an entire catalog of old-age infirmities-have an absolute field day in bathrobes and secondhand costumes that would be too tight for Falstaff. Mr. Vaughn, who has learned volumes about acting since the old days of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. , is a master class in perfect timing. He can turn his vexation over a vicious nurse who deprives him of his daily breakfast marmalade into a tirade more daunting than that of the Trojan women. Mr. Hecht is the oversexed baritone who comes up with every mad idea except how to smuggle Viagra into the upstairs dorm. Ms. Seal, deceptively fragile and stubbornly implacable, is marvelous as the diva who has lost her voice but not her pride. And the indomitable Ms. Ballard, subject to flighty fainting spells and fits of narcolepsy in mid-sentence, is the bubble-brain who keeps them all afloat with her infuriating cheerfulness. But these are more than just characters in a frivolous comedy with sitcom ambitions. Mr. Harwood so fully explores their mysteries, secrets, passions, failures and triumphs that even in reduced circumstances, they are always dotty, lovable, three-dimensional people of value. You come to know them intimately as faded stars and, more importantly, as human beings. They may have fallen on hard times, but as Mr. Hecht says, “There is nothing wrong with charity, so long as you are undeserving.” Quartet plays through July 27. After that, anything less than a Broadway future seems unthinkable.

A Manhattan Gem