'About a Boy': A Rake's Amusingly Slow Progress

By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 17, 2002

Amid the bells, whistles and other shiny objects that typify the summer movie season comes a true gem, a film that elicits its emotional payoffs the old-fashioned way: with emotions.

Hugh Grant reminds audiences that he's an actor, rather than a jumble of ingratiating mannerisms, in "About a Boy," in which he thoroughly inhabits the persona of the contemporary London rake – a role with which he is not entirely unfamiliar. The difference this time is the conviction he brings to Will, a hedonistic, independently wealthy 38-year-old bachelor who, when it's suggested that he possesses untapped hidden depths, quickly insists, "No, no, you see, I really am this shallow." Perhaps, but in this winning, tic-free performance, Grant lends the shoals layer upon layer of desire, terror, ambivalence and self-awareness.

"About a Boy" begins with Will telling the audience how it all started, which is with him leading his normal life: Watching TV, bedding (and promptly dumping) women and buying stuff for his very cool loft. Turning the old saw on its head, Will insists that "every man is an island," and he is setting out to prove the point, conducting himself in such a way that he wants for nothing and no one, ensuring "a long and depression-free life."

At one point, a friend fixes Will up with a single mother who turns out to be for him the perfect relationship: After a few weeks she saves him the trouble of calling the whole thing off by doing so herself, admitting that she's just not ready for a serious boyfriend (the series of facial expressions that Grant exhibits at this news is alone worth the price of admission). Seeing the endless possibilities of relationships that have built-in detonation devices, Will concocts an imaginary 2-year-old for himself and joins SPAT (Single Parents Alone Together), where he's the only man among women who wear T-shirts like one emblazoned with "Lorena Bobbitt for Surgeon General."

It's through this group that, circuitously, Will will make the acquaintance of 12-year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), who lives with his New Agey and seriously depressive mother, Fiona (Toni Collette in yet another spot-on portrayal of a barely functional basket case). Marcus has his own agenda: Whereas Will thinks that one is the loveliest number, Marcus has come to the conclusion that "two isn't a big enough number. You need backup."

After Will and Marcus forge a rather tenuous bond during an unexpected episode involving Fiona, Marcus begins single-mindedly to make Will a part of his life, while Will just as determinedly sets limits on their friendship. Thus does the irresistible force meet the immovable object, and the ensuing tussle reveals funny and often poignant truths about intimacy, autonomy, vulnerability and commitment – without, thank Heaven, ever using those exact words.

"About a Boy" originated with the novel by Nick Hornby, whose "High Fidelity" was adapted with such happy results a couple of years ago. "About a Boy" finds similar safe harbor here, albeit in unlikely hands. It's no surprise that this funny, observant screenplay was co-written by Peter Hedges ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape?"). But it will shock some parents that Paul and Chris Weitz – the purveyors of "American Pie," no less – have made a movie that the parents will not only approve of but want to go see. The Weitzes have executed a hip, whip-smart entertainment that finds its laughs in the slightly weary rue of the middle-aged, rather than the bodily functions of the young and nubile.

What's more, they have enlisted and worked wonders with a terrific cast, most notably newcomer Hoult – whose elfin face and Spock-like eyebrows give him enough otherworldly mystery to be a social outcast on the playground – and Grant, whose performance can only be described as revelatory.

Oddly enough, it might be the directors' experience with the coarser elements of human nature that made them so perfectly suited to "About a Boy." Resisting the temptation to sentimentalize and soften Will's reluctant emotional growth, the filmmakers have wisely hewn to Hornby's original vision (if not to his original ending), which is of a cad who ultimately makes some small adjustments, but refuses to capitulate entirely. "About a Boy" is that rare romantic comedy that dares to choose messiness over closure, prickly independence over fetishized coupledom, and honesty over typical Hollywood endings. See it now, because it's going to be a long summer.

ABOUT A BOY (PG-13, 101 minutes)Contains brief strong language and some thematic elements. At area theaters.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company