When I was in grammar school, there was this one kid (we'll call him Butch) who was light years ahead of everyone else physically. I even remember our phys ed teacher shaking his head over Butch's amazing abilities, which were on display no matter what goofy sport we were being forced to participate in. Needless to say, he was one of the most popular kids in our class.
Then something strange happened. As the Puberty Fairy visited more and more of my classmates throughout middle school (and, for some late bloomers, high school), Butch's athletic prowess became less exciting. Others assumed the mantle of the Greatest, and when we all parted ways after graduation, Butch may have been one of the shorter teenagers to wear the cap and gown.
A similar tale of peaking too early can be found in Daniel Kay's Way Off Broadway, a small independent feature that will be screened twice on Sunday, August 18 at the Little Theatre. Broadway focuses on the lives of five artistic types in their mid-20s who live in Manhattan and are struggling to break into various arms of the entertainment industry. Each seemed like they'd be the Next Big Thing while in high school and college, but as adults, they've found that the road to stardom is littered with numerous unexpected obstacles.
Morena Baccarin (look for her as a space whore in Fox's upcoming series, Firefly) is Rebecca, a beautiful actress who splits her time between a bookstore job and an endless string of auditions for tiny parts (like Tree #2 in a stage version of The Wizard of Oz) at which she's told she's too tall, too Jewish, or she's invited for a ride on the infamous casting couch. Forbes March (Mutant X) is Jay, a wonderfully talented guitarist who pretends he has carpal tunnel to avoid playing (for reasons we don't initially understand), preferring instead to be a homeless freeloader.
Sorority Boys' Brad Beyer plays Darren, a playwright wannabe with writer's block, a long-distance relationship and a father who is almost annoyingly supportive. Ethan (Jordan Gelber) and Mickey (Michael Parducci, from the locally produced Checkout) are so afraid of failure, they've opted to postpone their careers in favor of grad school.
These five characters are all friends, though a few have pretty serious spats, and spend a lot of their time eating, drinking, conversing, and generally lending each other moral support. Kay's dialogue is very well written and hardly ever feels forced, which helps elevate Broadway above most features by first-time filmmakers. There have been a ton of movies, independent pictures in particular, about struggling, tortured artists, but most are nowhere near this charming and likable. Part of its success is attributable to its cliché-free script --- these characters seem like real people.
An interesting look at failure, redemption and peer support, Broadway also has a sharp romantic edge that kept me guessing until the last minute, when Kay incorporates a moving romantic interlude that Cameron Crowe probably wishes he had penned.
In addition to Kay's script, there are two standout performances: Baccarin, who lights up the screen with her 1,000-kilowatt smile, and March, who, despite being Canadian, has a bit of a drawl that makes him look and sound like Owen Wilson channeling James Franco playing James Dean. And keep an eye out for a scene in which the directory of an apartment building lists the names of everyone associated with Broadway. You can ask Kay about this and any other questions you might have, because he'll be here for both screenings.
How do you think a film about the physical relationship between a mature 15-year-old girl and two 40-year-old professional men would go over in today's society? It probably wouldn't see the light of day, even if somebody had the cojones to make it.
Gary Winick's Tadpole, which depicts a similar March-August relationship but with a teenage boy and two older women, won the Director's Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. And that was after the film found itself in a bidding war that earned its producers about 30 times what Tadpole cost to make.
It all seems a little odd to me, but I'll try not to let my confusion over the double standard impact my opinion of the film.
Tadpole is about a high school sophomore named Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford), who we're introduced to as he takes a train from his fancy prep school to his home in Manhattan for Thanksgiving break. He seems content to read Voltaire, while pal Charlie (The Sopranos' Robert Iler) watches in amazement as a pretty coed with an obvious interest in Oscar is given the cold shoulder. When Charlie asks why he blew the girl off, Oscar tells him it's because "she had the hands of a child." Besides, Oscar explains, there's a new woman in his life, though when pressed for details by Charlie, he gives none.
The new woman, it turns out, is Eve (Sigourney Weaver), a cardiologist working at Columbia University. Yeah, she's more than twice Oscar's age, but that's not the scandalous part; Eve is also his stepmother. We're supposed to buy Oscar's attraction to Eve because he's a very sophisticated 15-year-old who is fluent in French, extremely well-read (especially poetry), says things like "I'm fatigued, Father," and generally seems much more interested in discussing the merits of Adam Smith's economic theories than chasing young tail. Basically, he's Eddie Kaye Thomas's Finch from American Pie (right down to his love of MILFs), only fleshed out a bit more.
Oscar's plans to woo Eve hit a major stumbling block one evening when he gets drunk and inadvertently sleeps with his stepmother's best friend, Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), for two reasons: She's wearing Eve's perfume-scented scarf, and she has great hands (she's a chiropractor). Cue uncomfortable dinner scene, in which Oscar is terrified Diane will spill the beans and destroy his chances with Eve. (Umm, isn't that statutory rape?)
Instead of worrying that she'll be arrested, Diane seems to revel in the sexual encounter as she puts Oscar through the wringer. A similar relationship is depicted in Lovely & Amazing, and it ends with the woman being incarcerated.
We've seen the older gal-younger guy thing before, whether the relationship is initiated by the woman (The Graduate), the boy (Rushmore), mutual (Harold & Maude) or "other" (Spanking the Monkey), but Tadpole isn't nearly as successful as any of these films. Instead of focusing on Oscar's pursuit of Eve, the film tries too hard to depict its main character as an adult in a boy's body. At times it almost feels like Big or Freaky Friday. And Tadpole's ultra-short running time really undermines the portrayal of Oscar and Eve's story. It's not the best film for people who like resolution.
On the plus side, Tadpole is a pretty amazing accomplishment, if you consider it was made for $150,000 and shot in just 14 days. The limited budget forced Winick (The Tic Code) to use digital video, but it works well here, and even makes Manhattan look more attractive than Woody Allen or Whit Stillman have made it look lately.
The film occasionally features some strong dialogue, especially the scene in which Oscar and Eve discuss the symbolism of the heart (a theme explored to death in Clint Eastwood's Blood Work), and the acting is good, especially from Neuwirth and the 25-year-old Stanford (the latter will be seen as Pyro in X-Men 2).
Still, I can't shake the feeling that if the male and female roles were reversed, feminists would be headed for the theater with pitchforks and torches, even if the teenage girl ran around quoting Voltaire instead of Lance Bass.
Interested in raw, unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.
Our review of Checkout in the August 7 issue was based on a copy of the film provided to us by the Little Theatre one and one-half weeks prior to its opening. After we published that review, the producers informed us that the copy we viewed was an early version of the film, and that substantial changes were made before it was released to theaters. The final version was not made available to Jon Popick before his deadline.