It’s appropriate that Universal would debut About a Boy against the latest installment in the Lucas juggernaut. Certainly it’s daring, which is the last thing one ever expected to say about a film starring Hugh Grant. Consider: Clones is an enormous movie that signifies nothing outside of itself, that’s as disposable as a broken action figure, while Boy is a small film that means a great deal, that reflects back on a portion of its audience that might feel adrift and alienated in a world where so-called “island living” promises happy seclusion but offers only loneliness and emotional retardation.
Will Freeman (Grant) lives on such an island, a North London apartment cluttered with recreational diversions — DVDs, CDs, crap game shows, men’s magazines, and cappuccino machines. He’s trivial, useless, and proud of it, a rich-boy slacker living off the royalties of a wretched Christmas jingle (“Santa’s Super Sleigh”) penned by his one-hit-wonder dad. He does nothing, wants for nothing, needs nothing … and is, in his own proud estimation, something of a nothing himself. “I didn’t mean anything about anything to anyone,” Will summarizes in voice-over. To the couple who begs him to be godfather to their newborn girl, he’s even more blunt, rejecting their invitation by insisting he’d likely shag her upon her eighteenth birthday. They’re horrified, but he insists, “No, I am this shallow.”
Will’s counterpart — his doppelgänger, really — is Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), the unhappy son of Fiona, a “daft fucking hippie” with suicidal tendencies played by Toni Collette. Twelve-year-old Marcus is as scruffy and uncool as Will is up-to-the-second hip; he sports thrift-store sweaters, a refugee’s beat-up brown shoes, and the unkempt eyebrows of a demonic Damien. He’s willing to suffer any indignation just to keep his mother from crying, and Hoult gives a rich, nuanced performance, looking throughout as though he’s about to shout, smile, or both.
Will and Marcus cross paths — accidentally at first — and the two help each other evolve. Theirs becomes less a friendship than a mentorship, only it’s never clear who’s tutoring whom. Will teaches Marcus there’s more to life than his mother’s penchant for singing Roberta Flack with her eyes closed; Marcus shows Will there’s profound warmth and comfort to be taken from the company of others, especially Rachel (Rachel Weisz), a single mother who initially believes there’s depth to Will’s kiddie pool. After bouts of contempt and wariness and ugly bitterness, boy teaches man, and man reaches boy.
About a Boy, written and directed by American Pie‘s Chris and Paul Weitz (Paul Hedges contributed a screenplay not used), is the third cinematic adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel, and it’s easily the best — not because it’s the closest to the source material (High Fidelity, despite being moved to Chicago, reads almost like the screenplay cowritten by star John Cusack), but because it’s more interested in the soul of the novel than the source itself. Will is still a closed-off prick — his idea of the perfect date is the single mother who has so lowered her standards that a self-satisfied narcissist like Will becomes quite a good choice — but his evolution feels organic and inevitable.
That has a good deal to do with Grant, speaking in a North London accent, who has never felt more substantial or real. His newly shorn hair reveals a slightly weary and aging countenance, and the self-absorbed glint in his eyes — the one that did so much of his acting for him in Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral — has dimmed slightly. Will is worn out from doing nothing, and Grant plays him like a man ashamed of himself but too embarrassed to admit it or do anything about it, until Marcus shows up on his doorstep one day after school and forces him to confront his worthlessness.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of About a Boy is how substantial it plays — as a feel-good film with weight, a knowing comedy with dramatic depth. Its characters engage the audience so that you don’t merely relate, but empathize, which is something most films don’t bother to do these days.
Fans of the novel might scoff at the feel-good ending — the Weitzes do away with the bit about Kurt Cobain’s death (the novel was set in 1993 and it wouldn’t make sense now) and the arrest of Marcus’ new, would-be girlfriend. Besides, modifications were necessary as Hornby’s novels tend to just end anyway, as though he’d decided to write to page 307 and stop there regardless. So skip Star Wars, this weekend at least; you know Anakin Skywalker grows up to become Darth Vader, but what will Will and Marcus become when they grow up? Us, probably.