North London bachelor Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) conceives his life as “The Will Show,” built around a single star. Independently wealthy (owing to the fact that his dead and unmissed dad wrote a beloved and trite Christmas jingle called “Santa’s Super Sleigh”), Will avoids entanglements of any kind. And while he might appear “naturally” glib and caddish, he works at it, carefully scheduling his time into “units,” with specific numbers of them allotted for one-night stands, haircuts, cd-shopping, and watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Countdown on tv. Yes, it’s a predictable, mostly unsatisfying existence, but Will is too indolent, uninspired, and arrogant to do much about it.
Fortunately, Will is not the single star of Chris and Paul Weitz’s About A Boy, which they adapted, with Peter Hedges, from Nick Hornby’s novel. True, Will’s superciliousness provides a certain distraction, but it wears thin within a couple of scenes. But by that time, you’ve met the film’s more remarkable presence, a 12-year-old boy named Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), who matches Will for basic charm, and outstrips him in self-consciousness and insight. Even as Will’s voice-over lays out his egocentrism, Marcus’s counter-voice-over offers some respite.
Where Will plots his alienation, Marcus worries, incessantly, that he “doesn’t fit.” He worries that his classmates pick on him (as his erstwhile friend tells him on breaking off contact: “Everyone thinks you’re weird”), that his winter cap is hopelessly hippie-style, and mostly, that his unstable mum, Fiona (Toni Collette), can’t seem to stop crying while making breakfast. In other words, About A Boy is not “The Hugh Show.” Thank goodness.
This is not to discount Grant’s infamous stammery appeal, even if part of this appeal lies in the fact that he plays the same character repeatedly. The PR folks working on About A Boy are clearly invested in this appeal, as the ad campaign points out that the new film is “from the makers [i.e., producers] of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’ Diary,” as opposed to, say, from the makers of American Pie, which is, after all, what the Weitzes are.
This advertising decision is hardly surprising, given that the film’s target demo is presumably different from American Pie‘s gross-out comedy enthusiasts. About A Boy is supposed to be a grown-ups’ romantic comedy, and if it’s slightly less cloying than the previous films made by the producers of Notting Hill, etc., this seems a function of the writer-directors’ penchant for what they like to call “perversity.”
This isn’t to say the film isn’t about childish behaviors, and even a few consequences of same. As Will informs a friend who expresses disbelief that he really is “that shallow,” oh yes, “I really am that shallow.” He wants to preserve this sense of inviolability, his belief that he is an “island.” Will meets Marcus by chance, when he devises his latest scam to meet and bed lonely women. Specifically, he decides to join a single parents’ association (SPAT, or Single Parents, Alone Together). That he is in fact not a parent (and has absolutely no plans to become one) deters him not a bit: Will makes up a 2-year-old son called Ned and joins in with the handholding and kvetching of moms who bow their heads and affirm that “men are bastards.”
Will nods and smiles and acts as though he knows something about feeding 2-year-olds. It’s at one of these meetings that Will meets the sweet Suzie (Victoria Smurfit) and her friend Fiona. When Will agrees to take Marcus for a day in the park they come home to find Fiona unconscious following a suicide attempt. The trauma bonds Will and Marcus in a way that neither quite comprehends; suffice it to say that Marcus starts showing up at Will’s home after school, where they watch television and snack until the child feels compelled to go home. The “boys”’ developing friendship goes through its weak montagey moments (there they are on the couch, on different days, in different positions or outfits, engaging in different, increasingly cute and increasingly shared activities), as well as its contrived crises.
For Will, crises tend to be about being found out; he’s an inveterate liar and rapscallion, after all, determined to maintain his hard-won independence by refusing to allow anyone near him. “I am a blank,” he says, “I’m really nothing.” This hardly lets him off the hook of human connection though: he’s living inside a film by the makers of Bridget Jones’ Diary, after all. Because Marcus is more perceptive than the average one-night date (at least of the sort that have so far interested Will), he gradually wins over his standoffish host (who early on insists that he doesn’t want to get caught up with “Miss Granola-Suicide and her spawn”). By the end of this montage sequence, they’re sitting next to one another, sharing a plate of snack food.
At the same time, though, Will’s home serves as the site of their evolution, so it’s hardly surprising that Marcus, rather than Will, must go an extra distance. The child is unnervingly more mature and obviously more generous than his seeming mentor. Not only does he forgive Will for not really having a son (which he finds out rather early in the relationship), but also agrees to pretend to be his son so Will can (following the effective disappearance of Suzie from the film), date yet another single mother, the splendiferous Rachel (Rachel Weisz), who keenly observes, “The first time I met you, I thought you were a bit blank.”
For some reason, even after observing Will’s inability to tell the truth or maintain any semblance of dignity in a relationship, Marcus still seeks his advice when it comes to wooing the girl of his dreams at school. This would be the wonderfully open-minded and punkish Ellie (Tena Gastiain), who takes a shine to him despite her friends’ persistent disdain. Will even helps out in this school-clique department when he gives Marcus a Discman and his first cd; inspired by Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass,” Marcus cuts loose in the school hallway, much to his classmates’ astonishment and Ellie’s delight.
Emboldened by his success, Marcus is further moved to lighten what he perceives as his mother’s load, by performing her favorite song, “Killing Me Softly,” for a school assembly. Unfortunately for him, this bit of self-expression is both longer and more excruciating than the hallway boogie. Sort of to his credit, Will steps up, not to save the day, exactly, but to share the pain. And it is considerable.
Will’s initial resistance to any sort of intimacy not sexual means that the film’s attention to his emotional and moral development can’t help but be conventional. What it does differently, and best, is show how this development occurs because of his relationship with a bright kid, who is, thankfully, not so preternaturally “mature” or “cute” as the ones who have helped save Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis’ souls, and more appealing because of it.
Still, the film’s focus on the boys comes at a cost: the girls don’t have much to do but serve as formulaic signposts for their life changes, Will’s emerging compassion and Marcus’ increasing self-confidence. Gradually, the boys evolve into slightly older boys, endearing and just sarcastic enough to avoid complete mushiness. It’s not Notting Hill, but it’s not quite something else, either.