About a Boy

Two English gentlemen of leisure.

Two English gentlemen of leisure.

(2002) Comedy (Universal) Hugh Grant, Nicholas Hoult, Toni Collette, Rachel Weisz, Sharon Small, Nicholas Hutchison, Nat Gastiain Tena, Ben Ridgeway, Isabel Brook, Tessa Vale, Paulette Williams, Jonathan Franklin, John Kamal, Victoria Smurfit, Augustus Prew, Peter Roy, Alex Kew, Roger Brierley, Denise Stephenson. Directed by Chris and Paul Weitz

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We all grow up at different rates. Some of us mature early; others are late bloomers. Then there are those of us who never grow up at all.

Take Will Freeman (Grant) for example. 38 years old, confirmed bachelor who has never worked a day in his life. He’s lived off of the royalties of a song he didn’t even write – his father’s hit Christmas tune “Santa’s Super Sleigh.” It keeps him in a comfortable flat with all the latest gadgets, able to eat out nearly every night, keep him in reasonably fashionable attire and pretty much do whatever he wants – or nothing at all. “Every man is an island,” he intones early in the film. “I happen to be Ibiza.”

He takes the same attitude towards human relationships. “I am the star of the Will Show,” he says about his life. “and the Will Show is not an ensemble drama.” He dates women, sure, and shags his fair share – Will Freeman is an incredibly handsome and charming guy. However few of his relationships last more than a few weeks, months at most. He values his solitude and the thing that terrify most of us in the night – that we’ll end up unwanted and alone – is just his cup of tea.

This kind of attitude can lead people to do unsavory things. In Will’s case, he discovers that single mums are a treasure trove for a guy like him. They have gone without sex for a long while so they are appreciative when he gives it to them and they shag like absolute fiends when he does. Then instead of Will having to break up with them, they actually break up with him. It’s an absolute dream. He discovers a support group – Single Parents Alone Together, or SPAT and goes prowling at their meetings, inventing a child – young Ned – who doesn’t exist. Ned’s mum left them both, breaking Will’s heart and of course bringing out the nurturing nature of his prey in the process.

This doesn’t fool everyone. Marcus (Hoult) is the son of SPAT member Fiona Brewer (Collette) who is the mate of the girl that Will is interested in dating…er, shagging. He figures out that Ned doesn’t exist and lacking any sort of father figure, he kind of latches on to Will. The two become somewhat connected when Marcus goes out with Will and his prospective shagmate and when they return home, find Fiona unconscious having attempted suicide. They get her to the hospital in time fortunately.

Fiona is kind of a 21st century hippie who doesn’t realize it isn’t 1972 and worse still insures her son is a laughing stock and a target for bullying. She is also bipolar (at least so it seems from an amateur’s perspective) and prone to bouts of really deep depression. Marcus is terrified that one day she’ll succeed in killing herself and with no backup, nobody else to look after him, he’ll be royally screwed. He winds up spending time with Will because at first he wouldn’t mind Will marrying his mom (which he quickly realizes will never happen) but later because he is scared of going home and dealing with his mom.

For Will’s part, young Marcus is socially awkward and a bit of a bother but there’s something about Marcus that is perpetually endearing and despite everything he grows to actually care about Marcus. In other words, Will is beginning to grow up. And when he meets Rachel (Weisz), another single mum, Will is actually beginning to want something more than a one-night stand. Maybe there’s hope for the boy after all.

This is based on the book by Nick Hornby and is one of a string of great British romantic comedies that came out during the last decade, including Love, Actually and Notting Hill both of which involved Hugh Grant. This had the thankless task of opening against the first episode of the Star Wars saga so it largely fell by the wayside yet still managed to do impressive box office business in spite of it.

Hoult, who has gone on to become a solid actor and potential star as a young man, made his debut here and pulled off a difficult role with amazing deftness for someone who was just 12 years old at the time the film was made. I do believe that most child actors would have made Marcus too sympathetic; Marcus is definitely the author of some of his own misery but is basically a good kid. He can be annoying and he can be pig-headed but he is also capable of great shining moments of sheer gold. His relationship with his crush Ellie (Tena) is also wholly believable.

While Collette gets the thankless job of making Fiona relatively sympathetic, it is Grant who pulls this off with one of the finest performances of his career. Shallow and selfish and occasionally downright mean, he is also another one who is a decent chap at heart who just needed the right boy to pull his decency out of him.

There is no doubt that the Weitz brothers who were previously best known for the first two American Pie movies make this occasionally manipulative and once in awhile a bit cliché. In their defense, we need those bellwether points of reference to let us know what to feel from time to time and there is a certain comfort in them – no shame in that at all. The movie is likable with a soundtrack (courtesy of the indie rock act Badly Drawn Boy) that is indelible as one of the best of the century’s first decade. And yes, likable is sometimes used as criticism but who doesn’t want to hang out with someone who is likable for a couple of hours? Sometimes that’s all we need to feel good about ourselves.

WHY RENT THIS: Hugh Grant at his best. Charming story that is rather moving in places.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally manipulative and cliché.

FAMILY VALUES:  Strong language here and there as well as some fairly adult thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are a couple of Badly Drawn Boy music videos, an “English-to-English”  dictionary and the complete lyrics to “Santa’s Super Sleigh” which should have been a holiday classic but isn’t…thank the Great Gazoo!

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: $130.6M on a $30M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love, Actually

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Day 2 of Our Film Library!

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