August 18, 2002 -- Hugh Grant gives one of his best performances in the funny, sophisticated, heartwarming, humanistic comedy, "About a Boy."
Hugh Grant of "Small Time Crooks" plays Will, a self-centered bachelor who does not work, has no friends, doesn't get along well with his family, and who fills his life with trivia, shopping and TV. He has fooled himself into thinking he is happy. He argues that some men are islands and he is one of them. He gets all of his income from royalties from an obnoxious Christmas song his father wrote years ago.
One of his least favorite things to do is to break up with girlfriends, which he has to do periodically so he won't get married or become a father. When his sister confronts him and tells him "You will end up childless and alone." Will replies, "Well, fingers crossed, yeah." Will finally dates a single mother who actually breaks up with him (his facial expressions pretending disappointment when she does so are priceless). He gets the bright idea of finding more single mothers to date and that is how he crosses paths with 11-year-old Marcus (played by Nicholas Hoult). Marcus is the son of a friend of a woman Will is dating. Both women are single mothers and members of a single parents group. When Marcus' mother tries to comit suicide, Marcus decides he needs a "backup" parent, so he tries to arrange a date between Will and his mother, Fiona (played by Toni Collette of "Changing Lanes"), hoping the two get married. Marcus also starts visiting Will every day. He quickly finds out Will has no son. Will has been lying to women in the single parents group in order to pick up dates. This gives Marcus ammunition to use against Will to further his plans.
The film is well-written by Peter Hedges ("A Map of the World"), along with Paul and Chris Weitz ("Antz"), an adaptation of the novel by Nick Hornby. The Weitz brothers also direct the film. It is warmhearted without being overly sentimental. Will's transformation is not miraculous. It is slow and painful and believable. He seems to become more humane in spite of himself. This is not one of those comedies with lower intestinal tract jokes and not one of those where the kids are all smart and the adults are idiots. Marcus is a smart boy, but he doesn't have all the answers. He is just as much in the dark about how to cope with his situation as Will and his mother are. This is a comedy that is more European in its sophistication and timing (it is set in England). Few American comedies are this perceptive about people and as realistic in the way characters are depicted. American comedies tend to be a lot broader and less realistic, relying more on physical comedy than wit and verbal humor.
The comedy is well-directed by the Weitz brothers ("American Pie"), the pace is slow, but steady and assured. Events unfold in an unhurried, believable way. The film is particularly poignant in the way it shows Marcus' pain in school as he is ridiculed and attacked by other children. Grant is perfect in the lead role and Marcus does an excellent job standing up to him. Collette is good as the manic-depressive mother and the supporting roles are ably filled, especially by Rachel Weisz of "Enemy at the Gates" who plays Will's love interest and Victoria Smurfit, who plays Suzie, another single mom wooed by Will. Although Will is portrayed as being shallow, he is still likeable. The film is not a male-bashing slugfest as is now so fashionable. It is more balanced than one would expect from the plot outline.
This is a thoroughly entertaining humanistic comedy (there is not a hint of spirituality in it). It touches upon some interesting ideas. It explores the question of whether or not human beings are really social animals (the "no man is an island" debate). It also makes the rather old-fashioned argument that people aren't truly complete without spouses and children. Of course, you could argue the opposite of these positions just as easily. That's what makes secular humanism such an amorphous philosophy. Human beings are plastic enough to fit a variety of molds, from Bhuddist to Christian to Nazi and from celibate to polygamist. Humanity makes for a very rubbery moral yardstick. This film rates a B.
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