About a Boy

 

About a Boy (2002) Review 5
Director:Paul WeitzChris Weitz,
Starring:Hugh Grant, Toni Collette, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult
Length:100 minutes
Rated:PG-13

 

Watching Hugh Grant act is a rare experience. A lot of the time the viewer is under the impression that he’s not really acting at all, because he’s developed a style that incorporates his considerable British charm (often described as foppish) into the somewhat limited range of characters he’s constantly playing. But he has talent, great heaps of it, and it’s simply a matter of tapping that talent — something that directors Chris and Paul Weitz have done with flying colors in their romantic comedy About a Boy.

As anyone will tell you, the Weitz brothers are responsible for 1999’s American Pie, the vaguely self-aware teen comedy that was simultaneously the pinnacle and downfall of its genre (though it was inventive, it sparked a wave of look-alikes which were most decidedly not). It is perhaps no coincidence that in About a Boy, Grant’s role is similarly intuitive. He plays the unmotivated, selfish, charming womanizer, a character which is sure to reflect both the audience’s perception of Grant as well has his recent choice in roles — last year’s Bridget Jones’s Diary as a ready example.

But it works, and Grant is a force to be reckoned with in About a Boy. He plays Will Freeman (whose name speaks to his character’s sensibilities, freedom and willfulness), a slacker who lives off the royalties of his father’s 1957 Christmas jingle, “Santa’s Super Sleigh.” His latest experiment in life is pretending to be a single father so that he can date single mothers — he finds their unwillingness to commit exhilarating. “Why hadn’t anyone told me about this before?” he muses in the film’s running voice-over dialogue.

It’s through these single mothers that he meets Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a 12-year-old who has quite a lot to teach Will — especially when Will meets Rachel (Rachel Weisz), the girl of his dreams, and believes that he can stick to his old lies.

The result is a charming story about two boys growing up (rather than the title’s one), and one that is thankfully free of Hollywood’s typically over-saccharine influences. The film is neither righteous nor preachy, and the happy ending feels like one that is justly realized, not foisted upon the audience by a studio-bankrolled screenwriter. About a Boy is innocent, too; it’s rated PG-13 but could very well have been certified PG — a sure sign that this film has its priorities straight.

The Weitzes are partially responsible for this, for they co-wrote the script with Peter Hedges (1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) from a novel by Nick Hornby. Hornby also wrote the source material for 2000’s John Cusack starrer High Fidelity, and in both instances his characteristic wit has received stunning treatment. Although High Fidelity was a much more subtle film (and some argue more fully realized), here, the dialogue goes for the kill, and viewers will be rolling in the aisles at some of the asides.

Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult make for the perfect screen duo given Hornby’s sense of humor. Although Grant has an uncanny knack for playing himself, he does it well, and the character of Hugh Grant is almost an acceptable substitute for any of his onscreen incarnations. Hoult is a wonder, a child actor who can toe the line with big-name Hollywood stars like Grant, Toni Collette, and Rachel Weisz, and make it look easy (he’s also likable without being precocious, careful to sidestep the Haley Joel Osment Syndrome).

Grant and Hoult are backed capably by Toni Collette and Rachel Weisz. Collette, who is probably best known for playing the harried mother in The Sixth Sense, again has the thankless role of the tragically out-of-touch mom, but is a wonderful performance for a character that, in another movie, might simply have become scenery. Weisz, too, turns her somewhat limited character into a very full persona.

About a Boy has more wisdom than most romantic comedies that Hollywood churns out, but what sets the film apart is its ability to develop these supporting characters into more than just supporting characters. Grant’s character describes his life as “The Will Show,” which, he insists, is not an ensemble drama — just a one-man act. But About a Boy is expressly the opposite. Although it clearly runs on the star power of Hugh Grant, it is a creative effort in which every character has a part and every actor lends a hand.