About a Boy
Screenplay : Peter Hedges and Chris Weitz & Paul Weitz (based on the novel by Nick Hornsby)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Hugh Grant (Will Freeman), Nicholas Hoult (Marcus), Toni Collette (Fiona), Rachel Weisz (Rachel), Isabel Brook (Angie), Sharon Small (Christine), Victoria Smurfit (Suzie)
In About a Boy, Hugh Grant, his famously foppish locks shorn in an aesthetically tousled crewcut, plays Will Freeman, a late-thirtyish London bachelor who cherishes above all his freedom from responsibility to anything or anyone. He is somehow beyond selfish, as caring for someone else seems to have never entered the picture as even a distinct possibility. Never having worked a day in his life due to his father having written a famous Christmas tune the royalties of which provide him a comfortable life, Will is essentially, as one character puts it, blank. He is the kind a man who takes time out from his daily routine of watching TV and buying CDs only for the occasional casual womanizing.
But, of course, because Will is played by Hugh Grant, he is never entirely dislikable, even when he is at his most unpleasant. Grant has played sly variations on this kind of role before, whether it be the family-phobic character in Nine Months (1995) or the lecherous office snake in Bridget Jones' Diary (2001), in which that slightly clumsy English charm barely masks something thoroughly dysfunctional. Will is certainly dysfunctional, although he doesn't see it, which sets in motion the film's challenge: to redeem him.
Redemption arrives in the form of an outcast 12-year-old named Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), whom Will meets via a series of events involving his faking single-parent status in order to pick up on single mothers (yes, he's that low). Marcus has his own set of problems, namely that he doesn't fit in at school--at all, to the point that even the computer nerds reject him--and his single, neo-hippie mom, Fiona (Toni Collette), is an emotional basket-case in need of some serious therapy.
Marcus decides to impose himself on Will as a way of getting him to marry his mom, which is a bad idea on all fronts. But, it turns out that he and Will begin to develop a tentative relationship in which, to use the old saying, the boy becomes father to the man. Marcus, mature for his age, and Will, immature for his age, make a perfect pair, even when Will falls into his old ways again and asks Marcus to pose as his son while he dates Rachel (Rachel Weisz), a single mom with whom he might be truly in love.
About a Boy may be the first movie to state its theme via the one-two punch of a trivia question on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, when host Chris Tarrant asks who wrote the famous line "No man is an island," and Boris Karloff being taught the importance of family in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). An island is precisely what Will is--or, at least, what he aspires to be--and anything smacking of a true connection with another human being is too complicated and weighty for him. He much prefers his solidarity life in his well-furnished London flat with its DVD and CD players, cappuccino maker, and other assorted gizmos and gadgets.
But, as the narrative unspools, Will finally begins to learn what John Donne (not Jon Bon Jovi, which is one of the choices) meant when he wrote the line about no man being an island in Meditation XVII, but not before he finally allows himself to be vulnerable. It's not a particularly challenging lesson to be learned, but the film does a nice job of deflecting the traditional couple finale by showing that even romance between a man and a woman in real life doesn't quite suffice. In the end, we need more people--we need real family, whether blood relations or not.
Directors Chris and Paul Weitz, best known for helming the teen comedy American Pie (1999), never deny the material's obviousness, yet they work in subtle nuances that give it a richer vibe. American Pie, for all its MPAA-pushing gross-out antics, was essentially sentimental at heart, and the Weitzes definitely let their soft side show here. The movie still has a sharp comic edge, though, particularly in the candid voice-over narration by both Will and Marcus that often flatly contradicts what is happening on-screen (particularly in Will's case). The movie was based on a 1998 novel by Nick Hornsby, who also wrote the source novel for High Fidelity (2000), and much of the humor comes from Hornsby's unique take on male insecurity and the various masks that are worn to hide it.
Credit should certainly go to relative newcomer Nicholas Hoult, who manages to strike all the right notes as a square peg who just doesn't seem to fit anywhere without being cloying or grating. And Hugh Grant is thoroughly convincing as Will (the mannerisms that he once played for genial nervousness have somehow morphed into signs of irritation) and the development of his character feels genuine. There are a few moments when About a Boy plays perhaps a little too close to expectations--particularly in a terribly uninspired big climax at a school music show--but it has enough unexpected laughs and dramatic insight into the closed mind of an overcontented male loner to see it through.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick