The hoard is deep, and it holds many forgotten memories.
There was a point, sometime in the new millennium’s first decade, where I felt rather insignificant and thought making a difference in someone’s life, by being a mentor, role model or good example, might lift me out of the melancholy.
I had a lot of problems, but whatever. About a Boy spoke something to me when I was trapped in that mindset. I’m also a sucker for good redemption stories. Seeing a jerk-off reform after understanding his errors has always been a motif that warmed my heart’s cockles. About a Boy shares similarities with one of my favorite movies, High Fidelity, in that both center around a selfish ass who learns he is the source of his own misery. Both movies were adapted from novels by Nick Hornby, who uses redemption and personal growth as common themes in his books.
In this case the soon-to-be-repentant protagonist is Will (Hugh Grant) a 38-year-old bachelor caught in stunted adolescence. Will lives in a swanky London flat complete with stylish furniture, expensive sound equipment and a shark tank. Thanks to a Christmas song his late father composed, he will never have to seek employment.
We hear “Santa’s Super Sleigh” a few times during the movie. It’s one of those sticky, saccharine holiday one-hit wonders that’s autolooped to a torturous degree after Thanksgiving. The song has as much appeal as “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” or “Christmas Shoes,” with ‘Super’ thrown in the title to round off its stupidity.
The royalties allow Will to literally turn his laziness into a philosophical art, where he measures every daily non-activity by “units of time.” His other hobby is hitting and quitting parades of women, not necessarily because he’s an impish cad (although he is) but because he prefers being alone, and loneliness, to any outside drama. “I was the star of The Will Show,” he narrates, “and The Will Show wasn’t an ensemble drama…it came down to me and me alone.”
Will discovers an untapped tang resource in scorned single mothers, women so caught up in childcare that sex is all they have time for in relationships. Will devilishly makes up an imaginary toddler to infiltrate a support group called Single Parents Alone Together, or SPAT, and his lies take him down a twisting road that leads to the Boy the movie is About, 12-year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult.)
Marcus is Will’s antithesis, selfless and standing on constant eggshells. His life is a waking nightmare morning to night, whether he’s being bullied at school or braving a co-dependent reversed role relationship he shares with his suicidally depressed mother, Fiona (Toni Collette). After Marcus walks in on her failed suicide attempt, Fiona has him on edge; every sign points to her being a time bomb.
Marcus realizes his burden is too much to shoulder, but that if someone else were at home he wouldn’t have to balance his mother and school bullies. He devises a plan to hook up Will with Fiona, and phase one consists of showing up alone and uninvited at Will’s apartment every day in time for Countdown. With Marcus’s influence, Will comes to realize that his lies, laziness and philandering have made his life meaningless; the moment he starts softening is when he buys Marcus cooler clothes and wait.
Stop. Hold the bloody phone.
First of all, the obvious elephant must be addressed. We live in tumultuous times, where the Internet has made us all cynical. A single, childless 38-year-old man cannot speak to, let alone spend unchaperoned time entertaining an unrelated little boy without wine-shaded flags popping up everywhere. There is no such thing as a father figure in the 21st century, only predators.
But by now we’ve spent enough time with Will to know that he is a dick, but not that kind of dick. He is simply too lazy to check up on the situation, assuming the boy has been getting permission to come over. This all leads to an inevitable and important scene where Fiona confronts Will with obvious questions. Will responds with indignation and because he is innocent of all charges, it’s an effective comedic moment. No, this is not a NAMBLA documentary. Sit down.
As for the second elephant—the magical child, brilliant beyond his years, playing matchmaker and thawing out the cold-hearted adult? Been there. Seen it. Yawn. Or perhaps not. About a Boy does a fair job of subverting most cliches found in this type of story, such as the potential match up of Fiona and Will. The twist is their personalities are so incompatible they don’t end up together; she’s a vegetarian hippie and Will is her polar opposite.
Instead, Will finds a woman he cares enough about to keep around, Rachel (Rachel Weisz). He’s starting to turn here but there is a long way to go yet, as Marcus continues to bring out Will’s deeper layers.
Although Marcus displays precocious selflessness and awareness, it is all within reasonable boundaries. His characterization allows him to be a layered, wise kid, but minus ‘cute adult’ lines and mannerisms typical of screenwriters who don’t understand children. His attempt at playing cupid is fitting for a boy in a desperate situation. Beyond that he is a typical preteen without the twee quirkiness.
The script is written by Peter Hedges, who penned both the novel and screenplay for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, another favorite. Hedges is joined by Paul and Chris Weitz, who have a lot of credits to their names but are renowned as the guys responsible for American Pie. They directed About a Boy in addition to co-writing. One may be tempted to categorize or stigmatize, but that would be unfair. The Weitz brothers have orchestrated About a Boy with a lot of heart and thought. The result is a well-balanced and consistently funny comedy without a hint of gross-out.
About a Boy takes a unique approach to voiceover narration by having Will and Marcus share narration in past tense. The story belongs to both of them, and the double narrating compares and contrasts their perspectives. It also provides insight into what they need, and what they have to offer each other.
This one’s worth keeping.
FINAL GRADE: A-