Everybody needs backup. You can’t just depend on a parent, a relationship or yourself to get by. You need more than that, even if you don’t know you need it.
Will (Hugh Grant) is a self-proclaimed shallow London bachelor looking for only the most low-maintenance love available. He seems to have found easy prey in the city’s pool of emotionally banged-around single moms. Posing as a single dad, Will weasels his way into their hearts until the thrill settles down, then bails.
And then there’s Marcus, a 12-year-old boy below the bottom rung of cliques at school, dressed in unhip sherpa clothing by his clinically depressed hippie mom, Fiona (Toni Collette). He’s perpetually teased because everything he does seems to trigger the little sadist in all the children around him — like when he unconsciously begins singing Carpenters songs in the middle of class. The two boys meet and the story begins.
In About a Boy, the script steals the show. Based on a Nick Hornby book (like the 2000 hit High Fidelity), the film’s dialogue is a pleasant mix of charming and titillating British pronunciation funneling an honest, smart-ass American acumen, peppered with some Londonese slang highlights. (Marcus first meets Will on a picnic with Suzie and refers to Will as “That Wally who wanted to get off on her.”)
From the very beginning, frequent voiceovers saturate the film, probably because the makers wanted to cram as much great Hornby writing in as possible. But it also works to connect Will and Marcus by exposing us to both of their thoughts. It’s a great source of contrast and humor, as when Marcus gets Will to take him and his mom out, Marcus thinks his mom is coming off well and looking smart in her hairy jumper, whereas Will decides, “She’s clearly insane, and she seemed to be wearing some kind of yeti costume.”
This is a timely role for Hugh Grant. The passing years are treating his acting ability well, and now there’s something behind that aging pretty face — an essential understanding of all life experiences, instead of just the “I only need to be good-looking” ones. Somehow portraying Will, a man finally compelled to mature after a long career of superficiality, mirrors the shift in Grant’s proficiency as an actor, which is sweet, punchy and multidimensional here. He’s right behind every line with a cache of intonations and expressions.
When a woman Will’s dating fortuitously breaks up with him before he gets a chance to break up with her, you watch Grant go from “Boy am I a lucky bastard” to “Oh, I better look crushed!” to “How much longer do I have to stay here?” It’s all pretty damn entertaining.
As always, Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense) is a powerful natural resource, expertly swinging Fiona’s moods from suicidal to overconfident. And let’s not forget the other boy in this story. Marcus — played by Nicholas Hoult — is a demanding role for a child, but Hoult easily manages to be the most “adult” human being in a film filled with grown-up children, wielding a clear perspective on life like a flashlight at camp. When he confesses to Will about boys hurling sweets (jawbreakers) at him, Will gives him a hard time about it, but Marcus shuts him up with a wise-before-his-time philosophy: “It happens, and I wish it didn’t, but that’s life, isn’t it?”
What a mess this world would be without kids. We adults can walk around for years foolishly thinking we know what’s what and that we can pull meanings and definitions out of our pockets like a professional magician waving colored handkerchiefs. That is, up until some child actually calls us on our messy, inadequate definitions and forces us to rethink everything. Marcus wants to know what the difference is between a girl who’s your friend and a girlfriend. When Will answers, he can’t help but see the sorry, reduced state of what he considers a love relationship, and inevitably he learns more about himself than what he teaches Marcus.
About a Boy is truly a love story, with dialogue and a story line that’s both pop and universally timeless, which is gold for moviegoers. It unconditionally brings out the best in everyone, by their own choice.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].