About A Boy
In this era of diminished expectations, "About A Boy" is an example of how filmmakers settle for less than they, or we, deserve. In making this comedy-with-a-dramatic-and-moral-component, they have squandered the chance to add a resonance that could have made the film a classic. "About A Boy" comes out instead as a halfhearted try at being at the same time a light comedy and a study of parents and children in trouble. In spite of some lovely moments it succeeds at neither.
Hugh Grant, whose scripts by now are tailored to his attractive but very narrow screen persona, is Will Freeman, a single man of 38 who has never held a job in his life because he lives on the royalties generated by his late father's one hit song, "Santa's Super Sleigh." He trolls for women to sleep with among the wounded birds of a single-mothers support group, by pretending that he has a 2-year-old son, 'Ned,' who is always conveniently away with his mother.
And so he meets Fiona (Toni Collette), a clinically depressed example of how perpetuating the organic-fiber, schmatte-ridden, whole-meal-bread-dough sixties can still ruin lives forty years later. Fiona also dresses her 12-year-old son Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) in the same style, topped off by what must be the last surviving Peruvian ski hat in London. It's no wonder Marcus is tormented every day at school.
Marcus is a wonder, a beautifully drawn character who is given a magnificent performance by young Hoult - a child actor without any actorish mannerisms. He latches onto Will, quickly finds out that 'Ned' isn't real, and insinuates himself into Will's life, ultimately dragging him kicking and screaming into the world of adulthood. The film, which was made by the brothers Chris and Paul Weitz ("American Pie") from the novel by Nick Hornby, who also wrote "High Fidelity," is at its best when Marcus is on screen, because he always surprises us. Somehow Hoult has found a way into understanding the complexities of Marcus's life, and reveals them without self-consciousness or theatrics. He is affected by the bad but responsive to the good, in ways that show Will what it means to be a grownup, and yet manages it all without preaching or suffering. He is awesomely bright, open to the unexpected, funny, and yet a perfect 12-year-old, with all the fears and insecurities of that dreadful age.
The problem for me with "About A Boy," if it is to have the resonance of good art, is the casting of Hugh Grant in the lead. He is simply too attractive, too articulate, too aware, too charming, too smart to be believable in the role of a man who is clueless at the age of thirty-eight. I do like Grant, but only when he has a worthwhile script. He both narrates and acts in this film, and he is an excellent reader of lines, which I mean as a compliment. But he is not what his character wants him to be, which is insecure and predatory, closer to his role in "Bridget Jones's Diary." I believe that in trying not to duplicate that performance he has lost the essence of Will Freeman - though if I'm permitted one guess I would say that that is why he was cast in this film.
And yet "About A Boy" has at least a dozen wonderful moments - enough to make it worthwhile, and enough that we see what might have been and mourn for what was lost.