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Review: About A Boy

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Hugh Grant has built his career playing a particular type of character–the dapper, charming, harmless, handsome, loveable Englishman–in a series of romantic comedies chiefly dating back to 1995′s Four Weddings and a Funeral. He’s played that sort of character so frequently and so well that he’s become almost an archetype unto himself, a cottage industry of disarming smiles and floppy hair guaranteed to make an audience feel better just for having watched him on screen.

About A Boy (2002)
Grade: A-
Directed By: Chris Weitz Paul Weitz
Written By: Peter Hedges Chris Weitz Paul Weitz
Starring: Hugh Grant Toni Collette Nicholas Hoult Rachel Weisz
Studio: Universal

And that’s why casting Grant as Will, the lead character in About A Boy, works so brilliantly. Will displays many of the traditional Grantian qualities: he’s charming, and handsome, and lovable, especially to single women… at least at first, until they get to know him and realize that he’s actually self-absorbed and immature and incapable of genuine attachment to other people. Will’s lived his entire life on the royalties earned by a spectacularly successful Christmas song his father wrote, and so consequently does nothing and contributes nothing and, by his own admission, IS nothing. A likeable nothing, perhaps, but a nothing nonetheless.

Will represents the complete inversion, nearly bordering on deconstruction, of Hugh Grant’s popular filmic persona. The audience’s pre-conceived notion of what a Hugh Grant character will be like plays perfectly against the kind of person Will actually is. All the pieces are there, but don’t add up a whole Hugh, or at least not to the expected Hugh. Grant seems to relish the opportunity to play somewhat against type and gives a richer performance than I’ve seen from him in quite some time, quite possibly the best performance of his career.

Could other actors have played this part as well as Grant? Perhaps. But the mere fact that Grant is playing Will adds a context to the character that no other actor could have brought in quite the same way. Credit directors Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz (the original American Pie) for picking the right actor for the role and then helping him craft such a fine performance.

After a blind date introduces Will to the world of dating single mothers–wounded, sexually voracious and as fearful of commitment as he is–he decides to attend a single-parenting support group in hopes of meeting more of these lovely, fractured, easily-disposed-of creatures. What he indirectly finds instead is Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a 12-year-old boy desperately in need of a father figure who eventually helps Will discover the good, worthwhile person hiding inside him.

Marcus is sensitive, deeply caring and courageous… all things Will is not. He’s far more mature and emotionally developed than thirty-eight-year-old Will. Marcus also displays a wisdom far beyond his twelve years and senses what the future holds for him if he and his mother don’t get some “backup.” He elects Will for that role whether Will wants to fill it or not. Hoult, in his first major motion picture, invests Marcus with intelligence, integrity and a stability that keeps him grounded amidst the uncertainty surrounding his life.

Toni Collette‘s performance as Fiona, Marcus’ neo-hippie mother grappling with depression, must also be commended. Do we have a more fluid, chameleonic actress working right now than Collette? She disappears completely within her roles and truly seems to be an entirely different person from picture to picture. Here, she expresses Fiona’s depression and self-absorption with grace and subtlety; the part could easily have been mangled into a shrieking, melodramatic mess by a lesser actress, but Collette’s restraint works beautifully.

The screenplay (by the Weitzes with Peter Hedges, based on the novel by Nick Hornby) stays mainly to the light-n-breezy comedy side of the road but occasionally veers over into deeper dramatic territory, especially during scenes featuring Collette. But the film never feels weighted down or off-course during those moments. The characters never feel trite or one-dimensional; even Will, who admits to being shallow, is nowhere near as shallow as he fears.

The movie’s called “About A Boy,” but just which boy the movie’s title refers to is debatable: the movie does indeed feature a precocious twelve-year-old, but really is about a thirty-eight-year-old boy, trapped in his room with only himself and his toys, who must learn to build a bridge and let others onto his island.

Written by Allen

February 13th, 2003 at 3:00 pm

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