Film

About A Boy (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

'About A Boy' is not 'The Hugh Show'. Thank goodness.


About a Boy

Director: Paul Weitz
Display Artist: Chris and Paul Weitz
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Universal Pictures and Studiocanal
Cast: Hugh Grant, Toni Collette, Nicholas Hoult, Rachel Weisz
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-05-12

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.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image