'About a Boy': Just About Brilliant
Friday, May 17, 2002
"ABOUT a Boy" is not only hilarious, touching and wonderfully dyspeptic, it's grounds for Hugh Grant's canonization as the patron saint of all cads.
Will Freeman is a bachelor who practically glistens with egocentricity as he wanders through his corner of London thinking purely about his own comforts: buying CDs, polishing his Audi Coupe, buying expensive clothes and chasing every woman that moves. For Will this also means disappointing, discarding and disrespecting women at every turn.
"I never watched a woman cry without feeling responsible," he says at one point.
In the movie, based on the Nick Hornby novel and directed by Chris and Paul Weitz, Will is the undisputed center of his own universe, self-absorbed, smug and ready to escape the slightest hint of responsibility, maturity or commitment.
Of course, he does all this with that top-drawer English accent an effortlessly posh articulation that coats his moral shortcomings in soothing mother-of-pearl.
Supported by royalties from a silly Christmas song ("Santa's Super Sleigh") written by his late father, Will has no reason to grow up, start a family or do anything. But he does have his passion for women. And when we meet him, he has discovered a whole new world: that of single mothers.
It seems there's a group called SPAT (Single Parents Alone Together), which brings divorced or separated parents (mostly mothers) together for group-hug sessions. It doesn't take long for Will to smell opportunity.
Pretending to be a single father with a son, Will regales the group with his saintly stories and swiftly becomes a hit with the group. They're touched by his sensitivity. And being the uber-cad that he is, Will takes complete advantage.
But, alas, Will is ultimately doomed to reap what he sows. And the agent of his moral comeuppance is a precocious 12-year-old named Marcus (a remarkably assured Nicholas Hoult) who's onto his game.
Marcus's deal is simple. He promises not to blow Will's cover if the anti-father lets him hang out chez Will. After all, Will's got an ultra-hip bachelor pad where the sound system and television are awesome.
Marcus has his own secrets, too. He's ducking out from bullies at his school, and he's avoiding time with his hippie, manic-depressive vegetarian of a single mother, Fiona (Toni Collette).
Will's life becomes a weird routine. After school, Marcus knocks on the door. On goes the TV. And it's the cad and the kid, next to each other on the sofa. And when Marcus invites Will over to his mom's for Christmas, well, brace yourself. Things are starting to smell suspiciously like family.
It's been fashionable to beat up on old Hugh as a callow, superficial type given to bumbling-Englishman roles. Fie, I say. "About a Boy" is the movie to end such nonsense. Despite being cast as, essentially, the antichrist, he's engaging and comical, without coming across as ham-fisted and sitcom-slick. And when Will starts to change for the "better," he takes us through the painful evolution every step of the way, strumming the chords to Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly" as he does.
That song, we discover, functions as the movie's pop-hymn of redemption. And it's testament not only to Grant's presence but great writing that this conceit never seems cheesy.
Ah yes, the writing. Grant would be nothing if not for the plentiful, piercing wit of novelist Hornby, as adapted by Peter Hedges and the Weitzes who, yes, also made "American Pie." (Who knew these brothers would evolve from teenage pie to this classier dish?) This movie isn't just great to watch, it's great for the ears to savor. When Will mentions his father's famous song, someone asks him if carol singers pay Will royalties every time they sing "Santa's Super Sleigh" outside people's front doors.
"Well, they should," says Will, without batting an eye. "But you can't always catch the little bastards."
See what I mean? So charming.