About a Boy review

:. Starring: Hugh Grant, Toni Collette
:. Script: Peter Hedges
:. Running Time: 1:40
:. Year: 2002
:. Country: USA


Hugh Grant pulls off About a Boy without being too annoying for a couple of reasons: A. Novelist Nick Hornby seemingly wrote the Grant's character with him in mind, so perfect is he at playing this charming cad; and B. For once, he's not using his obvious charms to win over some big-haired American girl. Instead, it's he who's won over by a friendless kid with a suicidal mother. (Grant's lack of foppishly floppy hair is also a welcome improvement.)

Thus, there you have the premise of one of literature's/cinema's unlikeliest duos. Grant plays Will, a 38-year-old Peter Pan who's never grown up because he hasn't had to. He likes to proclaim he is an island; people come to visit (usually cute girls) but no one sticks around long and that's how he likes it. But then a near-tragic event and a strange lie inhabits his island for good with Marcus, a 12-year-old who is ghastly bad at being a kid. How could you be when you've got a suicidal and clueless hippie (Toni Collette, all tears and sharp angles as Fiona) as a mother. Marcus first latches on to Will as a possible beau for his mom, but he soon realizes that Will's better suited to teaching him about being a kid. And, of course, a lesson about responsibility and growing up will be pounded into thick-headed Will as well.

Though the novel split time between these two characters fairly equally, the film focuses more on Will than Marcus—you couldn't expect more when you've got a crooked-toothed kid in rainbow sweater competing with Grant, his blue eyes framed with more expressive laugh lines than ever. Unfortunately, this makes it hard to get to know Marcus and Fiona. A quick breakfast and walk to school do not a mother/son relationship make. Why is Fiona so sad? What's the deal with his dad? And just a few minutes of schoolyard screen time really doesn't translate into the desperation Marcus feels at the hellish bullying he suffers, nor does it flesh out his bittersweet crush on intimidating, dreadlocked Ellie, as the novel does so well. These details are sacrificed at the altar of Will's self-deprecating (and celebrating) voiceover speeches and shopping trips.

So instead of a deeper look at arguably deeper characters, you get Grant as Will. It's nearly a fair trade-off. Talking in TV metaphors and cringing deliciously at such single-guy nemeses as a newborn baby and vegetarian nutloaf, Grant seems to have spent his entire career waiting for this part. He exchanges his trademark abashed grin for contemptible selfishness and sloth, but you can still understand why Will is the type of guy who might, after being slapped by one woman, be able to pick up on the next one who walks by. His joy in the lighter side of life is infectious. Who else could pull off a line about how driving fast after an ambulance is the best part of taking a kid to the hospital after his mother has downed a bottle of pills?

Though Grant's performance is great—charming, smarming and quite funny all at once—it doesn't automatically really make About a Boy a great film. It's candy for a day when you need a film that you know will end well. Damien Gough (Badly Drawn Boy) provides an appropriately lilting soundtrack; the Weitz brothers show there's life after bodily function humor. But the film's moments of absurd humor—like an incident involving a duck and a very large loaf of bread—are tempered with moments of predictability (do movie heroes always have to run very fast to save the day?).

The film ends happily—of course—with a shot of Marcus's grinning mug. But after nearly two hours of Grant's face, we really know which boy this film is about.

  Laura Tiffany

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