Tuesday 21 June 2011

About a Boy (2002)


As many of you are no doubt aware, there was a time that Hugh Grant was the very embodiment of the charming, bumbly Englishman in the movies… and then he got arrested with a hooker. I’ll skip over the details, but Grant was able to handle the whole thing so well, that his career actually managed to go up a notch or two. Now that he had some kind of dirt on him, he was freed up to take roles that may not have been open to him before. One such example is this, About a Boy, adapted from the second novel by Nick Hornby.

Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) is a hip 30-something guy whose friends pity him because of his shallow, immature and philandering ways. He responds by passing himself off as a single father so he can meet single mothers, who are much easier to shag and dump. However, Will’s life is interrupted when he meets 12-year old Marcus (Nicholaus Hoult), a boy who is his complete opposite.

There is a rather nice sense of restraint that comes through About a Boy, which is allows it to be quite refreshing and fairly free of cliché. There’s no big emotional scenes with characters tearfully stating their troubles or intents. Instead, directors Paul and Chris Weitz (probably best known for American Pie) have opted for a more controlled and subtle effort to come through. From the framing, the use of colour and the positioning of the actors, taking a single frame from any scene between Will and Marcus in Will’s place and you can sense the kind of relationship between them. Will clearly belongs here; Marcus clearly doesn’t. Will fits in almost anywhere, even if it’s because, as he says himself, he’s blank; Marcus doesn’t fit in anywhere. This is probably the most focused film the Weitz brothers have made.

The Oscar-nominated script (by the Brothers Weitz and Peter Hedges) also captures Hornby’s sarcastic sense of humour wonderfully. The voice-over can be a little hit-and-miss, but it’s worth it for the moments it works. For example, when Marcus’s mother is being taken to hospital in an ambulance, and Will is following behind with Marcus as his passenger, his voice-over informs us that, “It was terrible! Terrible!…but driving really fast behind the ambulance was fantastic!” Between that and Grant’s barely suppressed smile, you know that you’d be thinking the same thing.

Hugh Grant gives a superb performance here. There’s really quite a lot to dislike in Will’s character. He’s arrogant, shallow and seems to have a pathological aversion to anything that requires any emotional connection that lasts over two days. That said, Grant still manages to give him a likable charm. It would be so easy to find him repellent, his immature nature being too overwhelming for the audience to connect, but Grant is (despite the opinions of some) a much better actor than that. Hell, he’s even able to make you feel sorry for him at times, and considering the self-involved nature of Will, that’s quite a feat. There really aren’t many actors who could be so believable as a complete dick, and yet still give him a much-needed sense of depth and get across his sense of humour.

There is also able, if sporadic, support given by Toni Collette, as Marcus’ suicidal mother, and Rachel Weisz (or as I tend to refer to her, Academy-Award-winning-über-lovely Rachel Weisz), who are, frankly, two of the most consistently excellent actresses going.

One of the defining characteristics of Nick Hornby’s books is the relationship with music as part of the character’s lives (for example, see the novels for About a Boy and High Fidelity). Even some of his non-fiction work is about how much music plays a part in his life and work (31 Songs). Fittingly then, one of the greatest things about this film is its soundtrack, written and performed by Damon Gough, aka Badly Drawn Boy. It’s an unreserved joy to listen to and it beautifully accents each scene without vying for the attention of the audience over the film itself. Even if you haven't seen the movie, just buy the soundtrack. It's wonderful.

I’ll be honest, though; there is an element of About a Boy that I don’t particularly like. I’ve always found Marcus to be such an annoying little bugger. He’s a tragic case, sure, and it’s his complete lack of self-awareness and his willingness to put his mother’s happiness before himself that makes him the good influence that Will needs. That said, I can’t help but dislike him for a fair portion of the movie’s running time… and it’s precisely because of his complete lack of self-awareness. The whole thing about him being so lost in his own head that he will start singing in class without realising it just irks me, and the way he forces his way into Will’s flat and his life is incredibly off-putting. And Nicholaus Hoult’s performance doesn’t exactly downplay these aspects. He always seems so genuinely confused as to why Will finds him annoying, despite the fact that he basically blackmails him into hanging out with him. I do want to feel bad for the kid, but Hoult really doesn’t make it easy.

Perhaps the real root of this dislike comes from me identifying a bit too much with the character of Will. Not the lying, womanising dick part of him; the I-just-want-to-be-left-alone-with-all-my-cool-stuff part of him. If I’m honest, I think I see quite a bit of myself in Will Freeman, and that’s really why I don’t like Marcus, and by extension Hoult. In exactly the same way that the entrance of a child (or at least this particular child) irrevocably alters Will’s life, mine would probably be thrown off just as much because I’m just as self-involved as him. I maintain that Hoult’s performance emphasises too much of the bad side, but I think that my own self-centred nature probably has a little to do with it, too.

In the end, I actually do quite like About a Boy. It’s not perfect by many standards, but Hugh Grant gives a fine performance, the music is absolutely sublime and there is enough character and sentiment to allow the film to be the funny, warm and rather sweet film it sets out to be.

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