About a Boy

About a Boy

UK/USA, 2002. Rated PG-13. 100 minutes.

Cast: Hugh Grant, Nicholas Hoult, Toni Collette, Rachel Weisz, Nat Gastiain Tena, Victoria Smurfit, Sharon Small
Writers: Peter Hedges, Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz, based on the novel by Nick Hornby
Music: Damon Gough
Cinematographer: Remi Adefarasin
Producers: Tim Bevan, Robert De Niro, Brad Epstein, Eric Fellner, Jane Rosenthal
Director: Chris & Paul Weitz


Grade: B+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

Though his career has seemingly been built on self-deprecating stammerings uttered from beneath locks of floppy hair, Hugh Grant has now appeared against type in two consecutive films, portraying a rakish, shallow womanizer in both Bridget Jones's Diary and now About a Boy. In Jones, Grant's character was left to wallow in unrepentant befuddlement and self-pity. That's pretty much where we find him in About a Boy, in which the architects of American Pie, the Weitz Brothers, try their hand at British comedy with unexpectedly effective, and sophisticated, results.

Grant plays Will, an inveterate womanizer and commitment-phobe who believes that a man can, in fact, be an island, despite platitudes to the contrary. His luxurious apartment, where he lives the life of the idle well-off, is equipped with every imaginable gadget and amenity. For him, two months is a long-term relationship. He's never had trouble getting dates, but now in his late thirties, he and his indolent, carefree lifestyle are becoming less attractive to women his own age. So he hits on an idea. He will pretend to have a child and prey on man-starved single mothers.

What ensues is not at all the painful comedy of errors you might expect. What ensues is the story of the relationship that flowers between unwilling Will and the real-life kid that enters Will's life as a result of the charade. That kid is twelve-year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a social pariah hopelessly out of touch with contemporary culture as a result of the sheltering and cluelessness of his hippie mother (the wonderful Toni Collette of The Sixth Sense and Muriel's Wedding).

Marcus is what some call an "old soul," a prematurely grown-up kid wise way beyond his years. He is more grown up than Will, twenty-five years his senior. It is partly because he takes care of his mother, who is a mess, as much as she takes care of him. Yet she insists on treating him as a child of seven or eight. She doesn't quite realize that Marcus is almost a teenager, and that he has no idea how to enjoy life as other kids do.

The story's central irony is this: friendless and mercilessly bullied, Marcus has no idea how to be a twelve-year-old, and yet it is from Will's complete inability to relate to Marcus as a kid that Marcus derives comfort and strength. Hoult, Collette, and GrantThe two don't know what to make of each other. When Marcus explains that he must live each day with the knowledge that not only has his mother attempted suicide, but that she is likely to try it again, Will responds helplessly, "Fucking hell." Later Will berates himself for not having said something more constructive, not realizing that he has said exactly the right thing.

What Marcus needs most of all is to have his feelings validated--to hear from Will that, yes, his life is screwed up, and someone out there understands that. As a leading authority on superficiality, all Will has to do is take one look at Marcus to understand why he is tortured by his peers. He sees what Fiona is oblivious to. He sees Marcus's misery and his helplessness. In so doing and in reluctantly opening his door to Marcus, Will inadvertently shows him how to shed some of the burden and get along better.

Part of why their friendship works is that Will himself has failed utterly to mature. Marcus becomes Will's first responsibility, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out how this will affect Will, particularly when a new woman (Rachel Weisz) enters the picture. Refreshingly and unusually (for a comedy), Will's re-education happens not overnight, but by degrees, making it believable.

Except for the climactic scene, About a Boy is based faithfully on the novel by Nick Hornsby. Like with Hornby's High Fidelity, the trick to adapting the novel lies in preserving Hornby's voice, who expresses himself best and most amusingly in the inner thoughts of his characters. In High Fidelity, John Cusack talked directly to the camera. About a Boy chooses dual voiceover by both Will and Marcus. It is sometimes a bit of an aural jumble, but it enhances the otherwise simple film, making it more cerebral and giving it its excellent comic timing, particularly when Will's inner reactions are juxtaposed with his phony outward behavior.

The original climax, in which Ellie (Nat Gastiain Tena), the girl Marcus has a crush on, plays a key role, has been replaced with an overly staged--literally staged--scene that is obviously a screenwriter's concoction. Featuring the usual race against time and the usual taking of an emotional risk in public, it is slightly at odds with the rest of the story, but it serves its purpose without hurting the film, underscoring the totality of the gradual changes in both Marcus and Will.

The final message is more mature that what is normally offered in light comedies. About a Boy posits not just the usual usual romantic-comedy cliché that two is better than one, but it goes as far to argue that even two are not enough for happiness and meaning. Networks of relationships--complex and substantive human interactions--are what life is all about.

Oh, and if you care about such things, a friend--a sensible friend not given to idolatry of movie stars--remarked after the movie, "Hugh Grant is so cute in this!" He does look good. One might have expected this boyish movie star's career to collapse at the first crinkly signs of aging. Who would have thought aging would suit him, or that he could play confident, assured characters? It seems Grant doesn't need the floppy hair and the self-deprecating stammers after all.

Review © May 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

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