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About a Boy (2002)

DIRECTOR: Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz

CAST:

Hugh Grant, Nicholas Hoult, Toni Collette, Rachel Weisz

REVIEW:

Based on the book by Nick Hornby, produced by the producers of Bridget Jones’ Diary, and directed by the team of brothers who brought us American Pie, About A Boy is a prime example of how an approach heavy on irreverent wit and keeping the cloying sentimentality to a restrained minimum can inject enough freshness into a generic stock premise to make what could have been a bore a breezy and enjoyable viewing experience.

Our lead is Will (Hugh Grant), a self-centered superficial playboy who lives off the royalties of his father’s one-hit wonder ‘Santa’s Super Sleigh’ and spends his life chasing women and living his life as an ‘island’. He’s dependent on no one, and no one is dependent on him. Will hits on the idea of single moms as easy prey (and invents a fictitious, never-seen child to get into a single parents’ support group) but this leads to a chance meeting with Marcus (newcomer Nicholas Hoult), a lonely, socially hopeless boy who decides Will is the ‘backup’ he needs to help him look after his emotionally unstable mother (Toni Collette). Initially wanting nothing to do with them, Will’s resistance is eventually worn down, and after a time he forms a bond with the boy. But complications arise when he meets another single mother (Rachel Weisz), and doesn’t correct her assumption that Marcus is his son.

The overall plot trajectory of About A Boy is as predictable as they come. Of course the shallow, selfish playboy slacker will bond with the lonely boy. Of course their friendship will help the boy learn to fit in and make the man aspire to be a better person and grow out of his extended adolescence. Of course there will be complications and misunderstandings and the dramatic feel-good climax. What keeps About A Boy seeming fresh instead of cliched and stale is the approach. The humor is less about belly laughs (maybe the biggest is when Marcus accidentally kills a duck with a loaf of his mother’s inedibly hard bread that he throws into the lake) and more about a wry irreverence. This is also one of the few films where continual voiceover narration (two here, one from Will, one from Marcus) works effectively to add to the story instead of distract from it. Their inner monologues make us privy to things conversational dialogue can’t get across, and gives Hugh Grant plenty of opportunity to display his dry wit (‘I’d never watched a woman cry before without feeling responsible’), and for Nicholas Hoult to supply some biting commentary on what’s happening (‘There were some people who had a good time in life. I was beginning to realize I wasn’t one of them’). Even in the big feel-good finish, the Weitzes keep things mercifully more restrained than they could have been, and keep it from going over-the-top. Also, there is a solid dramatic underlining with effective character development. Will gets laughs, but we also are able to believe him when he realizes he cares about Marcus and aspires to, for once, do something worthwhile for another person. The title, About A Boy, is most obviously and literally about Marcus, but it could also be about Will. While Marcus is the boy physically, Will is a boy emotionally.

Hugh Grant is well-established as a wonderful comedic actor, and his dry humor and effortless charm makes us like Will instantly even if he’s hardly a noble figure (he starts out making up a son to get women).  But instead of making Will an over-the-top caricature, Grant and the filmmakers make him human enough that we can also believe him in his more serious moments later on when he realizes the emptiness of his own existence. Nicholas Hoult in his film debut makes a solid match for Grant; like most of the good child actors, he’s not conventionally “cute”, he plays his character 100% serious and straightforward, and seems old beyond his years. There’s a rapport that develops between Will and Marcus that we can believe because the actors sell it. Toni Collette provides solid support, like Grant imbuing a comedic character with enough depth to keep her from being a cartoon, and in probably the most completely straight role, Rachel Weisz is an appealing love interest, although she doesn’t show up until a little over halfway through.

Chris and Paul Weitz were also responsible for the ultra-raunchy American Pie, but there’s nothing nearly as randy on display here. About A Boy is mostly tame, and doesn’t push its PG-13 boundaries. The dialogue sparkles with dry wit, delivered as only Hugh Grant can deliver it (‘as for his mother she was clearly insane and appeared to be wearing some sort of Yeti costume’). There’s nothing terribly original or ambitious about About A Boy; it’s a familiar premise, well-executed. But it smoothly sidesteps the very easy pitfalls it could have fallen into, achieves the difficult balance of getting laughs while giving us characters we care about, and telling a “feel-good” story with refreshing irreverence and restrained sappiness, and that’s what keeps it delightful instead of deadening.

***

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