About a Boy might seem a strange project from Chris and Paul Weitz, the men who brought you American Pie, The Nutty Professor II (The Klumps), and Antz. This slightly dark film, based on an even grittier novel by British writer Nick Hornby (High Fidelity), for the most part eschews the over-the-top slapstick, special effects, and animation that characterize the Weitzes' earlier works. In its place are detailed character studies, a concern for the physical and emotional texture of everyday life, and eventually, a warm, smothering blanket of sentimentality. Yet a certain thematic coherence does link all these films--a fascination with the trials and tribulations of growing up, a concern with disjointed families, and a slightly skewed view of a system that reduces people to commodities.
In reality, and despite the singular title, not one but two 'boys' dominate the story. On its surface, the word more obviously refers to the adolescent Marcus (Nicholas Houit), a social outcast trapped between days of constant bullying at school and evenings with his suicidally depressed mother at home. But 'boy' applies equally well to Hugh Grant's childlike Will, a womanizing loafer living comfortably off royalties from a successful Christmas song his father composed. With nothing to do and plenty of time to do it, Will whiles away his hours watching the telly, lunching with friends, and bumbling his way through a series of short-term affairs.
Both adrift in the netherworld, Marcus and Will are destined to help each other 'grow up.' In the logic of the film, this process of maturation will occur when they fulfill their preassigned social roles: the single adult male must marry (or, at the very least, enter into a committed heterosexual relationship) and the youth must learn to fit in with his peer group--a process of acculturation tightly bound up with the acquisition and knowledge of prized consumer goods.
The first two-thirds of the film hew relatively closely to the novel, even mimicking, as much as possible, its structure, in which Will and Marcus narrate alternating chapters. On the page, their dual perspectives comment on and complement each other, sometimes merging harmoniously, at other times working in counterpoint, but always providing a richly meaningful juxtaposition. Obviously, cinema, more dependent on played-out drama, cannot sustain this rigorous dependence on first-person commentary. Voice-overs, the obvious solution, do allow us direct access to Will and Marcus's minds, but not quite as consistently or with such subtlety. Clearly, the directors/screenwriters wanted to show loyalty to their source material. But the concluding scenes suddenly veer sharply, heading firmly down the commercial Hollywood road. The film's entire meaning shifts, and the change colors everything that came before.
About a Boy might best be called a revisionist tale of 'family values,' in which adulthood arrives not through a romantic relationship, but through parenthood. Although Will's escapades with women have a touch of romantic comedy--and eventually a woman does enter the picture--the real love affair occurs between this overgrown adolescent and Marcus--a lost boy in search of both stability and a father figure. Notably, the movie gives short shrift to Marcus's real dad, still alive but remarried and living in another city, while Fiona (Toni Collette), the mother, remains wrapped up in her own pain, unaware of the horrors of her child's daily life. Not only is she unable to help him, but her blindness to his predicament further contributes to his plight.
In fact, for about two-thirds of its running time, About a Boy offers a pessimistic view of both adults and adult love. In the film's schema, men have abdicated their responsibilities, leaving women frustrated and holding the diaper bag for children they're forced to raise alone. With the brief exception of one wedded twosome (friends of Will's who try to prod the horrified bachelor into becoming godfather to their new baby girl), actively involved fathers are as rare as Martians, as are married or even happily cohabitating couples. Although Will's voice-over occasionally refers to the existence of the type of 'smug marrieds' who so obsess Bridget Jones in her diary, they barely register on the screen here.
That is why the most important issue for this man/boy buddy film is not the romance but rather mature masculinity, a male willing to stick around and take charge. Though Marcus initially views Will as a potential mate for his mother, that possibility is quickly jettisoned. Instead of having lovers 'meet cute,' as many a pair does in movieland, it is Will and Marcus who make the adorable connection. Their path to happily ever after begins when Will infiltrates a single parents' group--consisting only of mothers--in hopes of making new sexual conquests. To break in, he conjures up an imaginary three-year-old son. Most of the women there, however, are mere comic stereotypes, viewed by both Will and the film's visual scheme as unsuitable sexual partners. But there's one possibility: a friend of Fiona's, and Will accompanies her on an outing to the park. But while he's got his eye on her, she's got her eye on Marcus, whom she's 'babysitting' for the day. When the bored boy idly tosses a piece of his mother's homemade, hard-as-rock organic bread at the ducks in the pond, killing one, Will's quick (and mendacious) thinking rescues him from a park ranger's wrath. A bond is born, and Will's initially self-serving fantasy of fatherhood is on its way to coming true.
Each character here represents more than just his or her individual psyche: each embodies a particular perspective on class, culture, and politics. Will is the ultimate consumer, and the Christmas song that supports him keeps on providing 'holiday presents' all year round. His home is chock-a-block with gadgets and the latest in electronics. While others work, he shops. Though educated, he is unemployed, and unproductive to society in every sense of the word. Separated from community by his own desires, he immerses himself in a high-tech sterile world--but one in touch with contemporary times. He knows the cool sneakers and the hot rap music capable of turning Marcus into a 'normal boy.' Like Cinderella's Fairy Godmother, he generates a magical transformation. But--like Pretty Woman, that other modern version of the fairy tale--he's also about to get rescued right back.
Fiona, by contrast is a dyed-in-the-wool hippie, a fallback to the 1960s. Swathed in ethnic garb, dedicated to vegetarianism, and with no CD player in the house, her influence makes Marcus a pariah. She chooses his unfashionable clothes and gives him an unflattering haircut: in style-conscious London, they make Marcus a marked man with his fellow students.
The film is rife with meaningful musical references, all referring to a particular time, place, and attitude. To some extent, this is a holdover from the novel, where the image of Kurt Cobain links the story's many diverse themes--inconsolable unhappiness, suicide, selling out, and teen rebellion. The film exchanges Cobain for hip-hop, with such matters as CD versus vinyl and the respective machines that play them signifying an entire worldview. The rap CD Will gives to Marcus contains overt sexual references, particularly to women's bodies, and is a product of both the black culture that has blossomed in modern Britain and of electronics rather than traditional instruments. Fiona makes music the old-fashioned way--she plays the piano--and her choices are years out of date. Significantly, when Marcus joins her in her favorite, "Killing Me Softly," he is forced into the female voice. Will puts him right with the world of lusty masculinity, and that immediately catches a girl's attention and leads to Marcus's first friendship and crush.
Finally, there is no way of looking at About the Boy without considering the position of its star. The role of Will must be viewed through the prism of Hugh Grant's body of film work as well as his 'star image'--his publicity and public persona. Audiences frequently conflate movie stars and their parts, and this has proven particularly true for Grant. Will is both a shift from, and a comment on, the sweet, witty, and rumpled protagonists he consistently played from Four Weddings and a Funeral up until his cad in Bridget Jones's Diary. Now, however, along with a more spiky hairstyle, the personality has curdled a bit too. Will nearly drowns in self-delusion and lies, and the empty vessel that is his soul nearly leads him only to depression and loneliness. Significantly--and this is where About a Boy starts to fall badly to pieces--when Will finally finds a woman he really cares for, he wins her with what has become his only virtue: his relationship to Marcus, whom she believes is his real son. He loses her when he tells her the truth (which does not happen in the book), and his penance is to save Marcus from making a fool of himself by joining the boy in a chorus of "Killing Me Softly" in front of an entire school audience. Only by reaffirming that bond to the boy--by, in effect, showing that he is a 'true father,' whatever the blood relationship--can he enjoy love. At this point, the various critiques running throughout the film all resolve in a shower of syrupy sweetness.
About a Boy illustrates the perils and pitfalls of the commercial trap: while it initially reveals a willingness to step into the darkness and examine serious issues about family, loneliness in an age of commodities, and the pressure to conform, it backs away, offering a mushy, feel-good conclusion instead.
Source: About a Boy (Film). By: Backstein, Karen, Cineaste, 00097004, Fall2002, Vol. 27, Issue 4 – Masterfile Premier Accessed 02/24/2011.
Embraceable Hugh - Grant Singularly Appealing at Heart of 'About a Boy'
Hugh Grant, who has a good line in charm, has never been more charming than in "About a Boy." Or perhaps that's not quite what he is. Charming in the Grant stylebook refers to something he does as a conscious act, and what is remarkable here is that Grant is--well, likable. Yes, the cad has developed a heart. There are times, toward the end of the film, where he speaks sincerely and we can actually believe him.
In "About a Boy," he plays Will, a 38-year-old bachelor who has never had a job, or a relationship that has lasted longer than two months. He is content with this lifestyle. "I was the star of the Will Show," he explains. "It was not an ensemble drama." His purpose in life is to date pretty girls. When they ask him what he does, he smiles that self-deprecating Hugh Grant smile and confesses that, well, he does--nothing. Not a single blessed thing. In 1958 his late father wrote a hit song titled "Santa's Super Sleigh," and he lives rather handsomely off the royalties. His London flat looks like a showroom for Toys for Big Boys.
Will is the creation of Nick Hornby, who wrote the original novel. This is the same Hornby who wrote High Fidelity, which was made into the wonderful John Cusack movie. Hornby depicts a certain kind of immature but latently sincere man who loves Women as a less demanding alternative to loving a woman. Will's error, or perhaps it is his salvation, is that he starts dating single mothers, thinking they will be less demanding and easier to dump than single girls.
The strategy is flawed: Single mothers invariably have children, and what Will discovers is that while he would make a lousy husband, he might make a wonderful father. Of course it takes a child to teach an adult how to be a parent, and that is how Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) comes into Will's life. Will is dating a single mom named Suzie, who he meets at a support group named Single Parents, Alone Together (SPAT). He shamelessly claims that his wife abandoned him and their 2-year-old son, "Ned."
Suzie has a friend named Fiona (Toni Collette), whose son, Marcus, comes along one day to the park. We've already met Marcus, who is round-faced and sad-eyed and has the kind of bangs that get him teased in the school playground. His mother suffers from depression, and this has made Marcus mature and solemn beyond his years. When Fiona tries to overdose one day, Will finds himself involved in a trip to the emergency room and other events during which Marcus decides that Will belongs in his life whether Will realizes it or not.
The heart of the movie involves the relationship between Will and Marcus--who begins by shadowing Will, finds out there is no "Ned," and ends by coming over on a regular basis to watch TV. Will has had nothing but trouble with his fictional child, and now finds that a real child is an unwieldy addition to the bachelor life. Nor is Fiona a dating possibility. Marcus tried fixing them up, but they're obviously not intended for each another--not Will with his cool bachelor aura and Fiona with her Goodwill hippie look and her "health bread," which is so inedible that little Marcus barely has the strength to tear a bite from the loaf. (There is an unfortunate incident in the park when Marcus attempts to throw the loaf into a pond to feed the ducks, and kills one.)
Will finds to his horror that authentic emotions are forming. He likes Marcus. He doesn't admit this for a long time, but he's a good enough bloke to buy Marcus a pair of trendy sneakers, and to advise Fiona that since Marcus is already mocked at school, it is a bad idea, by definition, for him to sing "Killing Me Softly" at a school assembly. Meanwhile, Will starts dating Rachel (Rachel Weisz), who turns out to be a much nicer woman than he deserves (she also has a son much nastier than she deserves).
This plot outline, as it stands, could supply the materials for a film of complacent stupidity--a formula sitcom with one of the Culkin offspring blinking cutely. It is much more than that; it's one of the year's most entertaining films, not only because Grant is so good but because young Nicholas Hoult has a kind of appeal that cannot be faked. He isn't a conventionally cute movie child, seems old beyond his years, can never be caught in an inauthentic moment, and helps us understand why Will likes him--he likes Marcus because Marcus is so clearly in need of being liked, and so deserving of it.
The movie has been directed by the Weitz brothers, Paul and Chris, who directed "American Pie"--which was better than its countless imitators--and now give us a comedy of confidence and grace. They deserve some of the credit for this flowering of Grant's star appeal. There is a scene where Grant does a double-take when he learns that he has been dumped (usually it is the other way around). The way he handles it--the way he handles the role in general--shows how hard it is to do light romantic comedy, and how easily it comes to him. We have all the action heroes and Method script-chewers we need right now, but the Cary Grant department is understaffed, and Hugh Grant shows here that he is more than a star, he is a resource.
Source: Ebert, Roger, Embraceable Hugh - Grant singularly appealing at heart of 'About a Boy' Chicago Sun-Times - Friday, May 17, 2002