About a Boy
review by Gregory Avery, 17 May 2002

Good positioning

In About a Boy, Hugh Grant plays Will, who has settled into a comfortable, independent (his father is the composer of an execrable Christmas song which has become a standard), sluggish and self-absorbed life of late-thirties singlehood, enjoying his creature comforts while dating women with whom he can, when the time comes, break-up with easily without hurting their feelings too much.

Along comes Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), an eleven-year-old whose single mother, Fiona (Toni Collette), keeps going to pieces all the time. Figuring that the two of them need some help, he assesses Will and decides to target him as a potential father figure, starting off by resolutely ringing Will's doorbell every day to spend an hour watching television with him. Marcus figures that, sooner or later, he'll wear will down, and he does -- Will initially starts putting up with Marcus' intrusions into his life with a resigned air, but, later, finds himself, much to his surprise, caring about what happens to the kid.

As potentially precocious as this set-up sound, the movie, fortunately, never succumbs to it. In fact, it turns out to be pretty well constructed and conceived, including the point, halfway through the picture, where the situation of an older man having a young boy visiting his house every day on a regular basis is called sharply into question -- Will finds himself admitting that not only does he have a genuine emotional investment in Marcus, but that it's entirely paternal, and this revelation causes him to make an honest accounting of the other areas in his life. The film was directed, in London, by the Weitz brothers, Paul and Chris, from a screenplay they adapted with Peter Hedges from a Nick Hornby novel, and they show a certain verve in the way they made this film that you wouldn't have particularly expected after having seen their previous American Pie films. Not only does the picture have an authentic feel in terms of its characters and settings, but the story is fully nuanced, as well.

Wearing the standard easy-to-launder uniform of the modern-day male (T-shirts and jeans, pop them into the wash, they don't need any pressing), and sporting what looks like the beginnings of a pot belly in some scenes (Will has devoted a regular allotment of "units" in his day to watching television, but I may be wrong about the pudge, as his neck and shoulders, in some shots, look like they've been down to the gym a few times), Hugh Grant is essentially too quick and debonair an actor to be totally convincing as a man who is gradually going to seed, but his skills as a performer bring Will's sly self-observations fully to life, along with the moments of blind terror that flash across his face and eyes as he realizes he's stepping into territory that is outside of what he has so carefully circumscribed for himself in life, and that he's doing so in such an irresistible manner that he may never get back to the same, comfy way of living that he has made himself so accustomed to. Grant's performance is matched fully by that of Nicholas Hoult, who has eyebrows that curve up like lines in a Hirschfeld drawing and keep his face from becoming too cherubic. Hoult performs very well, whether he's showing how Marcus draws his defenses up to get through the gauntlet of schoolyard bullying, trying to figure out how to approach a girl whom he's grown sweet on, or the way he calls upon the scruples he's developed  that are a part of the self-reliance he's had thrust upon him early in life. However, when he sings "Killing Me Softly With His Song" at the piano with Fiona, while an increasingly incredulous Will looks on, you can see how this is one of the things that Marcus and his mother share in such a way that it keeps them bonded as tightly as a mother and son can be.

About a Boy opened shortly after the new Star Wars movie, and it was probably a good piece of positioning. If I were twenty years younger, I'd probably be crazy over the Star Wars and Spider-Man flicks right now, but I've found my tastes have changed, and I just haven't been running out to see the franchise films, lately. They stand like edifices, indifferent, taking the moviegoers' money, but it doesn't seem to make any difference whether you see them or not. Where's something with some human drama? While I will stop short of going completely off my head and proclaiming About a Boy to be the best thing that happened since sliced bread, I will say that it gave me the gratifying feeling, afterward, that it was worth my while to go out and see it on the big screen. That's what you hope to get from a movie, and that's what keeps us going back to them.


Directed by:
Chris Weitz
Paul Weitz

Starring:
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

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

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