A washed up singer is given a couple days to compose a chart-topping hit for an aspiring teen sensation. Though he's never written a decent lyric in his life, he sparks with an offbeat younger woman with a flair for words.
Twelve year old Marcus Brewer lives with his chronically depressed single mother, Fiona Brewer. Both Fiona and Marcus beat to their own respective drummers. Marcus will do whatever he can to make his depressed mother happy, even if it causes himself grief. As such, he realizes that he is perceived as different than most kids, as even the self-professed weird kids don't want to hang out with him as he is the target of bullying. Part of the taunts against him are the fact that he sings and speaks to himself without even realizing that he is doing it. Meanwhile, thirty-eight year old Will Freeman is a slacker who has lived comfortably off the royalties of a song written by his deceased father, and as such has never had to work a day in his life. He is a solitary man who places himself as the first and only priority in life. He comes across the idea that dating single moms meets his selfish carnal needs. It is in this capacity that Will meets Marcus, as one of Will's single mother ... Written by
Sometimes a rut can feel like a hammock when we get stuck in one.
"About A Boy" is about a Londoner who was apparently born into one, imprisoned as it were by his father's legacy as author of one of the world's most popular and annoying Christmas songs. After years of feckless unemployed upper-middle-class living, Will views himself as an island, and sees his lack of long-term relationships as a plus. Even offered the simple honor of being an infant's godfather, Will begs off, saying he'd be "crap" at it and probably just "try and shag" the girl the moment she turned 18.
"I always thought you had hidden depths," the mother says.
"No, you've always had that wrong," Will cheerfully replies. "I really am this shallow."
But of course Will does have depths, and as played by Hugh Grant in a role that gives this smooth comedic actor a chance to showcase some previously-unguessed-at depths of his own, we find ourselves rooting for Will to find them as he finds himself attached unwillingly to a 12-year-old named Marcus, played with welcome non-cuteness by Nicholas Hoult. Marcus, an abuse magnet at school, is alternately worried for his unstable mother and searching for a pal. Will, a 12-year-old at heart, is a perfect if unknowing candidate.
Based on the great Nick Hornby novel, "About A Boy" walks a fine line, doling out easy laughs and real pathos with deceptive ease. Like Hornby's book, the movie depicts Will's perverse detachment from the world as both delightful and pathetic. Life is a full plate of pain for those who participate, but the benefits, as Marcus tries to tell Will, beat all else.
Of course, most of us don't have the luxury for "island living," and the potential of resenting Will, especially as played by that handsome devil Grant, might have been the film's biggest danger. But Grant defuses things with a subtle characterization that downshifts on the smugness and draws on the lost boy within.
For example, when Will tries to infiltrate a single-mothers' club as a way of bagging some commitment-free sex, we watch him tell the mothers about his own non-existent two-year-old boy Ned telling him "you hang in there, Dad," then reacting with uncertain fear when the mothers enthuse about how remarkable that is for such a young child.
But we also see the pain Will pretends isn't there, in brief flashes as he reflects on the hard-drinking failure his father became after his one-hit wonder, and especially in one great scene where Will finds himself with a woman he really cares about, unable to break out of his artifice at a critical moment. During that scene, and a later, angry one with Marcus, Grant's acting really demands consideration from those who dismiss him as a dandy glamor boy.
The directors, Chris and Paul Weitz of "American Pie"-fame, prove they can make a film that delivers intelligence as well as laughter, and with writer Peter Hedges, fashion a script that takes some clever and daring liberties with Hornby's solid story. I especially liked the one near the end of the movie, but if I revealed anything I'd probably get some Flack for it, so say no more.
The very last scene of the movie is a mistake, though, the kind of tidy resolution Hornby's novel and life itself rightly rejects. It's the one bum note in this film, but enough of one to dock it a point with me. Otherwise, I'd have to rate this above even the other cinematic Hornby adaptation, the classic "High Fidelity." But this is a very entertaining film, with great set design, a terrific "Rubber Soul"-style Britpop title song by Badly Drawn Boy, tight editing, and subtle, crafty camera work. Also some great supporting performances, especially Toni Collette as Marcus' mother, who has the film's toughest role (she must be funny and suicidal) and manages to not only pull it off but gives "About A Boy" a wonderfully unstable center. As "About A Boy" makes clear, instability is a good thing when it shakes us from our ruts.
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