Review: About a Boy
Saturday, 18 May 2002 00:09
*** ½ out of ****

May 17, 2002


How cool is Will Freeman?

"This cool," British author Nick Hornby tells us a few pages into his 1998 best-seller About a Boy, the film version of which opens today and stars Hugh Grant: "He had slept with a woman he didn't know very well in the last three months. He had spent more than three hundred pounds on a jacket." And, to name just one more of Will's vainglorious achievements, "He had spent more than twenty pounds on a haircut."

In other words, Will Freeman is the kind of guy that most men aspire to be, and most women aspire to be with - whether either sex will admit it or not.

After watching Chris and Paul Weitz's adaptation of About a Boy, I'm still not sure what surprised me more: That Grant, who has made his career playing the lovable romantic bumbler (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral), could be so perfect as the shallow cad described above. Or, that the Weitz brothers, who previously directed American Pie and the dreadful Chris Rock vehicle Down to Earth, were capable of making such a smart and often hilarious romantic comedy.

Set in its original London (unlike the last Hornby adaptation, High Fidelity, which was transplanted to Chicago), About a Boy shows how Will's carefree life - made up of countless hours playing pool, having his hair "carefully disheveled" at expensive salons, eating at posh restaurants, and having meaningless sex with as many women as possible - becomes complicated when he reluctantly befriends a troubled 12-year-old boy named Marcus (Nicholas Hoult).

Is Will going to evolve? Is Marcus's friendship going to teach Will the valuable life lesson that, despite his claims to the contrary, no man is an island? You've probably seen enough movies to know the answers to these questions.

But what makes About a Boy so refreshing is that the Weitz brothers, along with co-screenwriter Peter Hedges, effectively draw out the sentimental aspects of the story without overwhelming Hornby's acerbic brand of humor. (When Will goes to a meeting for single parents as a scam to pick-up "grateful" women, one woman boasts a T-shirt that says "Lorena Bobbitt for Surgeon General.")

Even Will's voice-over narration, a device commonly (mis)used by filmmakers to provide introspection, is mostly filled with sarcastic observations that consistently undermine whatever "profound" changes Will is experiencing.

Grant does his part to shrink the sappiness by abandoning his trademark blinking and stuttering. Rather than try to endear himself to everyone he meets, as typical in a romantic comedy, Grant seems to revel in Will's isolated, aloof existence. He gave a similar performance as the womanizing Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones's Diary, but with less charm and wit. Whereas Daniel was never trustworthy, Will parades his flaws so proudly that it's impossible not to cheer him on.

The film also features strong performances by newcomer Hoult and Toni Collette as Marcus's depressed mom. Collette could be the female Billy Bob Thornton thanks to her chameleon-like ability to portray totally disparate characters. In the recent drama Changing Lanes she was an attractive yuppie having an affair with the ethically-challenged Ben Affleck. Here she convincingly plays a frumpy, oddball single mom who can't even make a bowl of cereal without weeping about it.

Of course, what most people who are reading this review probably want to know is if About a Boy is a better movie than High Fidelity. It isn't. But then, High Fidelity was a better book to begin with. Most Hornby fans I meet seem to agree.

For those of you who may not already be Hornby fans, seeing About a Boy is an ideal place to start.


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