About a Boy
review by Carrie Gorringe, 17 May 2002

Killing us softly

Watching Hugh Grant on the screen as the leading man in a romantic comedy is always, at least for this reviewer, a somewhat schizophrenic experience, if for no other reason than the difficulty experienced in trying to sort out the various aspects of his public/private persona, the latter of which has sometimes been on extremely embarrassing public display (remember Divine Brown?). There's just an unease that he seems to bring to this sort of role that's hard to place and to shake off, mainly because it's sometimes difficult to ascertain exactly what level of sincerity he actually brings to the part of the bumbling, yet charming and dashing, fop;  there's just enough underlying oiliness and coldness in his portrayals that tends to prevent this leading-man image from seeming completely credible.  This thought leads to the inevitable question about which role suits him better: the bumbling but charming clod from Notting Hill, or more like the sardonic theater director in An Awfully Big Adventure

In About a Boy, Grant is given the opportunity to straddle both sides of this dilemma.  Will Freeman (Grant) is proud of his position as a self-confessed "shallow" person.  His personal needs are well-met, thanks to the substantial royalties generated from his father's brief but profitable song-writing career (a one-hit wonder  of seasonal tripe entitled "Santa's Super Sleigh" which everyone in the film keeps singing, much to Will's eternal embarrassment).  Thanks to this legacy, Will has taken up the career of professional layabout, dividing his life into "units" in which he watches TV, gets his hair cut, and lounges in the tub drinking high-end beer, all done, of course, on schedule.  Indeed, the only distress in Will's life resides in the chic recycled barn-door screen inside his spotless ultra-modern flat; it adds an ironic counterpart of real life to his wastrel lifestyle.

Will's only real interest revolves around the pursuit of women, especially ones whom he can snag, shag and shed with the same monotonous regularity that he brings to the rest of his life.  He takes his pursuit seriously (to the point where he infiltrates an Amnesty International phone-a-thon in order to chat up new prospects).  Will sums up his attitude toward life thusly:  "A person's life is like a TV show.  I am the star of The Will Show, and The Will Show is not an ensemble drama."  This doesn't mean, of course, that he isn't adverse to having a occasional guest star in his life until he becomes uncomfortable and panics about the inevitable slide from of a particular woman from being a bit player into a more permanent co-starring role.

At one point, having run out of women to torment, his desperation leads him infiltrate a single-parents group.  After having lied his way into the group's confidence, and, by chance and a few complicated plot twists, he encounters a twelve-year-old boy named Marcus (Hoult, in a winning performance).  Marcus' life exists in a 180-degree realm from Will's:  Marcus suffers at the hands of his mother, Fiona (Collette, equally as winning), whose mental disorder frequently culminates in one suicide attempt after another.  Even when she isn't trying to kill herself, she has extremely adverse effects on her son: her hippie clothing and bohemian behavior has also caused Marcus to suffer at the hands of his classmates, who abuse and bully him for his mother's awful  insistence that she accompany him to school.  As if she couldn't torment her son any further, she calls out, "I love you" after him as he walks past the school bullies straight into the classroom.  It somehow seems appropriate that her tastes in "modern" music run more to Roberta Flack than to rap, because, in the process of raising her son, she is, to quote the lyrics from her favorite song, "killing him softly."

Will's assistance following one of the suicide attempts, and his casually-tossed out "See you around" after the whole affair leads Marcus to believe that Will really means it.  Soon thereafter, he begins to make regular and unwelcome -- appearances at Will's flat.  During the next eighty minutes or so, Will has to cope with Marcus and the emergence of a new woman named Rachel (Weisz) in his life. Having suddenly discovered a use for Marcus as chick bait, Will puts him to work, only to find that an entire lifetime of habitual infidelities at all levels of life may just catch up with him at the least opportune moment.

Filmmakers Chris and John Weitz  (the co-directors of American Pie and the co-screenwriters of Antz) want to take this scenario and turn it into a delightfully playful meditation on the old no-man-is-an-island theory.  The symbolism used in the film telegraphs the ironic changes that will occur in the narrative (Will as a "free man"; the paralleling of Fiona and Will's obsessions with sex and death, respectively, etc.), and it is, admittedly, cleverly accomplished without being heavy-handed, if somewhat simplistic.  However, About A Boy eventually leaves the film floating in a credibility limbo, because of its treatment of its characters, particularly in regard to their development along the course of the film.  Many of those changes, as a matter of fact, are so sudden that, collectively, it results in a somewhat hollow feeling at the film's very center.  Even Grant's spot-on performance, treading the fine line between the self-mocking and the sincere (this is one role that brings out this aspect of Grant's acting style to winning effect) and his fine interrelationship with Hoult's character can't conceal the problem, because it is, unfortunately, part of the central problem.   It's redundant to state that comedies in general are not obligated to provide a satisfactory closure at all levels, but it shouldn't feel as if something has been put over on the audience at least, not without its consent. 

Of course, if you're able to ignore this central issue, and some of the more trite aspects of the film (and, admittedly, it can be done, provided you don't think too hard about what you're seeing),  then About A Boy is probably a warm and fluffy alternative to, say, Star Wars Episode II:  Attack of the Clones.

Directed by:
Chris Weitz
Paul Weitz

Hugh Grant
Toni Collette
Rachel Weisz
Isabel Brook
Sharon Small
Victoria Smurfit
Nicholas Hoult
Nicholas Hutchison
Peter McNicholl
Ben Ridgeway

Written by:
Peter Hedges
Chris Weitz
Paul Weitz

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may be
inappropriate for
children 13.






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