In his native England, Nick Hornby is a very well-known author. Here in the States, his fame is more of a cult thing; he's considered one of the hippest, most talented writers around by his core group of devoted fans. I'm one of those fans, and thankfully our numbers are growing. I first discovered Hornby when I picked up a copy of his novel "High Fidelity," which instantly touched a cord with me. (The book was turned into an equally terrific movie starring John Cusack.) The author's knack for telling simple, yet emotionally resonant stories - combined with a sharp wit - was what I responded to. Right after reading that book, I went out and purchased "About a Boy," which proved to be another winner. This novel has also been turned into a movie and the filmmakers have done it justice.
Hugh Grant plays Will, a self-absorbed thirty-something who prides himself on his shallow lifestyle. He likes to brag about the fact that he does "nothing" for a living; Will lives off the royalties of a hit novelty song his father wrote decades earlier. Attachment is probably Will's biggest fear. He loves women, but only in the short term. Relationships just get in the way of his stereo, his DVD player, and his social life.
Then Will gets a revelation. He is fixed up on a blind date with a woman he desperately wants to sleep with. She announces that she has a young son. Although he secretly wants to run away, Will pretends to like the kid so as not to be obvious. The woman is impressed by his "sensitivity," inaccurately pegs him as a decent guy, and moves things along to a more physical level. A few weeks later, she breaks it off, not because of anything he did but because she's not yet ready to make another serious commitment again. Suddenly, Will decides that single mothers are just what he wants; he figures they are emotionally vulnerable yet reluctant for anything too deep. He can effectively use them and still maintain his phony good-guy image when they dump him.
The idea of a wise-beyond-his-years kid teaching an overly immature adult to grow up is not a new idea. The beauty of Hornby's story is that he doesn't pack it with cliches. Instead, he packs it with recognizable characters and emotionally identifiable situations. It's an approach that works well for movies: on one hand, you've got your "high concept," and on the other, you're a league smarter than most other pictures.
The big-screen adaptation of About a Boy has been directed by Paul and Chris Weitz, the brothers who also made American Pie and the Chris Rock comedy Down to Earth. Admittedly, I was a little uneasy when I heard they were doing this project; nothing in their resume suggested they could capture the exquisite humanity of Hornby's writing. I'm pleased to say that the Weitz brothers prove themselves to be first-class filmmakers, capturing all the sweetness and richness of the author's vision. Credit also belongs to Peter Hedges who wrote the faithful screenplay along with the Weitzes.
When I read the book, I didn't know who to picture in the role of Will. After seeing the movie, I can't imagine how I failed to picture Hugh Grant. He's one of the few actors who could do this role. Grant seems to relish playing semi-jerks (remember his brilliance in Bridget Jones's Diary?) and he also has the charm to make Will's eventual transformation believable. I know the Academy probably won't remember back this far, but Grant deserves an Oscar nomination. In the wrong hands, Will could have been too unlikable or, conversely, too maudlin. Grant hits every single note perfectly, be it comedic or dramatic.
I liked the rest of the cast, too. Toni Collette is very good as the depressed mother just barely clinging to life for the benefit of her son. Rachel Weisz also does good work as the first woman Will ever meets that he genuinely likes. And then there's Nicholas Hoult, who is a real find. He's not your typical cutesy Hollywood kid; they make him look kind of goofy with his pageboy haircut and way out-of-fashion clothes. This is Hoult's first film role and not once does he rely on typical child actor tricks. There's no mugging at the camera, no urge to vogue adorably. He embodies the confused child who doesn't know what's wrong with his mother but thinks this strange man can help. There's a powerful scene in which Will tells Marcus that he can help with superficial things like buying shoes or recommending cool music. What he can't do, however, is help with the "real things" or anything that is actually important. Grant conveys Will's admission of uselessness with genuine sorrow, while Hoult shows the devastating impact of it with a few small facial gestures. This is good stuff.
Of course, the movie builds to a conclusion: Will's cover as a single father is blown just as he discovers the humanity he never knew he had. One important thing in both the film and the book is the ending. I wouldn't exactly call it ambiguous but it does suggest that life goes on with both the good and the bad. The characters don't necessarily live happily ever after. They do, however, form friendships that will help them through whatever tough times lay ahead. That's a good ending, one that sends you away feeling great without resorting to the manipulation that comes with tying up every single loose end.
I loved About a Boy - from start to finish. It's funny and touching and realistic, with wonderful performances from the whole cast. Movies like this are why I became a film critic in the first place.
( out of four)
About a Boy is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
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