A correction was made to this review on Jan. 26, 2004.
The story of a man who’s reluctant to tell his fiancee that all his blood relatives are dwarfs, “Tiptoes” comes up short in too many departments. Despite a bracingly peculiar premise and an astonishingly fine perf from Gary Oldman, watchable pic is uneven, a pacing-impaired oddity with a name cast that’s an honorable failure. Ode to tolerance seems likely to be discriminated against in the commercial arena, but should elicit curiosity wherever it’s shown.
Painter Carol (Kate Beckinsale) and fire-fighting instructor Steven (Matthew McConaughey) live together in a handsome loft in Southern California. At pic’s outset, he’s dressed up for a mysterious family function to which Carol is not invited. Steven firmly deflects all her probing. Turns out it’s the annual meeting of the Little People’s Defense League — and Steven’s parents, uncle and diminutive twin brother Rolfe (Oldman) all qualify.
That night, Carol tells Steven she thinks she’s pregnant. She doesn’t understand his distressed reaction until Rolfe — a slightly hunchbacked dwarf with thick glasses who’s a journalist and walks with a cane — shows up unannounced. Carol misses a few beats but is almost instantly accepting of her mate’s stunted twin brother, if frustrated by the magnitude of Steven’s secrecy.
In an almost completely arbitrary parallel strand, Rolfe has a friend, Maurice (Peter Dinklage, the dwarf actor in “The Station Agent”), a combative chap who’s French, a Marxist and a biker wracked with pain from ulcers and skeletal problems. He strikes up a lusty romance with a free-spirited flake, Lucy (Patricia Arquette).
Terrific make-up and visual effects help render the completely unrecognizable Oldman entirely convincing as a miniature man, whatever the camera angle. Evoking the matter-of-fact feel of brothers talking, he and McConaughey give their scenes together an emotional veracity lacking in too much of the pic.
Essentially, Bill Weiner’s script is hampered by a lack of dramatic conflict, largely due to the fabricated dilemma between Steven and his conscience. That the only normal-sized member of the family has the most problems — or is constantly told he does — may have sounded an interesting idea on paper but proves strained and bland in the telling.
Handsome, gainfully employed and loved by a good woman, Steven has only one overt problem: a preference for adopting a child over the risky business of conceiving one. This may seem a perfectly normal fear to most auds, but when the single-minded Carol goes through with her pregnancy despite his objections, the stakes are made to increase all around. As a result, dramatic conflict flounders, in a forced and unappealing way under the direction of Matthew Bright (“Freeway,” “Ted Bundy”).
In addition, all of the little people in the cast — with the possible exceptions of randy, cranky Maurice (though, of course, he’s French) and Rolfe’s promiscuous ex-g.f. — are solid, well-adjusted, self-accepting individuals. It’s a world the ostracized carnies of Tod Browning’s 1932 classic, “Freaks,” could never have imagined — a far better place but dramatically a less captivating one.