Every story worth telling is ultimately about a girl, says Peter Parker in Spider-Man, but the makers of Hugh Grant’s latest star vehicle, About a Boy, might disagree. Yes, the film, which is already a hit in England, stars Grant (in his best role since Four Weddings and a Funeral) as yet another promiscuous, commitment-phobic cad who, in this case, poses as a single father in order to pick up single mothers. And yes, some writers, looking for a way to pigeonhole this movie, have called it a “romantic comedy.” But although About a Boy is very much a story worth telling, it is, like the title says, ultimately about a boy — about two boys, in fact, and the effect they have on each other’s lives.
One boy is Will (Grant), an idle 38-year-old who, living off the royalties of a hit song his father wrote before he was born, has never held a job for more than a few days and has never really had to grow up. The other boy is Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a 12-year-old with a depressed and suicidal mother who is, by far, the most uncool kid in school. The fact that he sometimes sings in class when his mind wanders, without realizing it, doesn’t help.
Both characters tell their side of the story through voice-overs. Will describes how he has divided his day into meaningless half-hour units of time — one for watching his favourite sitcom, two for taking a bath, and so on — and how he refuses to let any woman stay in his life for too long. His life is a TV show, and everyone else is a guest star in it, at best. Marcus, for his part, says he wishes he could escape his present life and be an actor like Haley Joel Osment — maybe because his mum, Fiona, is played by Toni Collette, who also played Osment’s mother in The Sixth Sense — but he doubts he could ever get over his stage fright.
The two meet when Will infiltrates a support group for single parents. He claims he has a two-year-old son named Ned, who is conveniently away with the mother right now, and he takes a friend of Fiona’s to one of the group’s picnics. Marcus tags along, but Fiona stays home, and when the guys return, they find her passed out on the couch, suspended over a pool of vomit on the floor, with an empty bottle of pills on the table. They rush her to the hospital, and nothing captures the film’s delicate, honest mix of humour and seriousness better than Will’s private thought that the situation was “horrible, horrible — but driving fast behind the ambulance was fantastic.”Marcus, unconvinced that his mother will never try anything like this again, decides he needs another parent as “back-up,” and so he imposes himself on Will, dropping by after school to watch TV and do little else. And Will, of course, finds that, much to his chagrin, he actually begins to care about Marcus — and this has ramifications for his own life, especially when he finds himself attracted to a woman (Rachel Weisz) who might mean more to him than just another sexual conquest.
About a Boy is the third film to be based on a book by Nick Hornby, and unlike High Fidelity, which was directed by a Brit but relocated to Chicago, About a Boy takes place in England and was directed by two Americans, namely Chris and Paul Weitz, the eclectic duo who co-wrote Antz, co-starred in Chuck & Buck and co-directed American Pie. With a resume like that, it’s impossible to predict what any given film of theirs will be like, but unlike, say, Cameron Crowe, whose humorous punchlines often interrupt and undermine the more serious moments in his films, the Weitzes allow the humour to come more naturally out of the interactions between the characters, and they thankfully refuse to exploit these same serious moments for their sentimental value. When Fiona and Marcus sing ‘Killing Me Softly’ together at their piano and invite Will, who is desperately trying to hide his agony, to sing along, the moment feels authentic, and we are allowed to experience Fiona’s momentary peace, Marcus’s hopeful joy, and Will’s private discomfort all at the same time.
The script, which the Weitzes wrote with Peter Hedges (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?), has its flaws; the brief references to Will’s father could have been fleshed out a little more, and the film’s resolution is both a bit too messy and a bit too neat. But for the most part, the film strikes just the right tone.
3.5 stars (out of 5)
— A version of this review was first published in The Vancouver Courier.