About a Boy (United Kingdom/United States, 2002)
Talk about an unenviable task... Universal Pictures has chosen About a Boy to be a sacrificial lamb, electing to open it on May 17, opposite Attack of the Clones. Maybe they're hoping that movie-goers disappointed by sell-outs at the latest Star Wars sequel will buy a ticket to this movie. Or maybe it's counter-programming, although the desire to see the Star Wars movies cuts across racial, class, gender, and generational boundaries. It's too bad that the distributor has matched About a Boy against such an undefeatable opponent - this movie is deserving of more exposure than it's likely to get. It may not be a "must-see" blockbuster, but it's better than a lot of what passes for summer entertainment.
The film's pedigree is impressive. The producers (Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner) are the men who sat in a similar chair for Bridget Jones's Diary. The writer of the novel upon which About a Boy is based (Nick Hornby) is responsible for the source material for High Fidelity. And the directors came into prominence by doing unspeakable things to desserts in American Pie. Add to that the always-appealing Hugh Grant and the gorgeous Rachel Weisz, and is it possible to go wrong? If About a Boy is anything to go by, the answer is no.
Using a stock plot, About a Boy injects just enough freshness into the proceedings to provide an enjoyable 100 minutes in a movie theater. There's nothing terribly challenging or original about the production, but it boasts nicely rounded, amiable characters, a fairly consistent sense of self-deprecating wit, and the occasional belly laugh. We grow to care about the protagonists, which is critical in this sort of outing, and the Weitzes manage the difficult task of making the big climax satisfying while, at the same time, they avoid pushing it over the top to the point where it becomes overly sentimental claptrap.
Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) is the ultimate slacker. Living off the royalties of his one-hit-wonder father's Christmastime jingle "Santa's Supersleigh", Will is proud of never having had a job or, indeed, having done much of anything. He's not interested in a serious relationship - casual sex and one-night stands are his forté. Then, one day, he makes a mistake. On the prowl for easy female prey, he ventures into a single parents' group meeting. Soon, he is dating a woman who is babysitting for her friend's son, Marcus (Nicholas Hoult). This wouldn't mean much to Will, except that Marcus takes a liking to him and decides that Will might be the perfect match for his emotionally disturbed mother, Fiona (Toni Collette). Then the strangest thing happens - Will and Marcus strike up an unusual friendship. But complications ensue when Will falls for another single mother (Rachel Weisz) and wants Marcus to pretend to be his son.
Depending on your preference, About a Boy can fall into one of two categories. The most obvious one is the older man-meets-young boy-and-both-teach-each-other-life-lessons grouping. The film could also be seen as a coming-of-age story, since, at the beginning, Will is essentially stuck in a state of perpetual adolescence, and his interaction with Marcus gives him a perspective on life that he never previously had. Suddenly, his isolated, insular lifestyle seems shallow and superficial, and, even though it's "hard work to be wonderful all the time", it's worth the sacrifice.
I think the key to the movie's success is the slightly irreverent tone adopted by the directors. Approached from a different perspective, this could have been a painfully trite and overbearing motion picture. But the Weitzes know when to wink at the audience, and they employ internal monologues (for Will and Marcus) to provide biting commentary on what's going on. The movie is smart enough to avoid sit-com and movie-of-the-week situations. Hugh Grant is in rare form, toeing the line between his "aw shucks" good guy and the cad from Bridget Jones's Diary. In Will, Grant gives us a character whose obvious flaws are a primary reason for his appeal. Meanwhile, Nicholas Hoult shows legitimate screen presence, and he and Grant generate some chemistry. Toni Collette and Rachel Weisz provide capable support.
About a Boy is not a daring film, but it is immensely likable. Every once in a while, a movie comes along that, despite traversing familiar terrain, is made with enough all-around skill that it overcomes its clichéd origins. About a Boy is such a movie. In a summer when pyrotechnics, superheroes, sequels, and mindless action are sure to rule, this film gives us a feel-good human story to savor between bursts of testosterone and adrenaline.
About a Boy (United Kingdom/United States, 2002)
Cast: Hugh Grant, Toni Collette, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult
Screenplay: Peter Hedges and Chris Weitz & Paul Weitz, based on the novel by Nick Hornby
Cinematography: Remi Adefarasin
Music: Damon Gough
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures