About a Boy

When actor Hugh Grant was caught with prostitute Devine Brown in a car off Sunset Boulevard, instead of hiding in shame, Grant grinned and bared it. He popped up on The Tonight Show and confessed to Jay Leno. Instead of getting angry at the jokes, Grant played along. The public didn’t crucify him because they understood that was who Grant was.

Through his performances in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Sirens," American audiences came to know Grant as a rakish chap with a winning smile and a taste for women. He was a college frat boy who never grew up, the handsome guy who never went home alone, and left behind more broken hearts than Melissa Etheridge at Lilith Faire.

Grant is excellent as Will Freeman, the emotionally immature playboy who has no need for women other than casual sex. Freeman is glib, self-absorbed, and extremely shallow, and those are his good points. Living off the royalties of a moderately successful Christmas song his father wrote ("Santa’s Super Sleigh"), Freeman is the ultimate slacker. He has everything he needs (or wants) except love.

It’s the sort of role Grant excels in, and he’s absolutely disarming as Freeman. Grant has divided his career up into two different personas. His Jekyll is the sweet, affable Englishman who wooed movie star Julia Roberts in "Notting Hill." Hyde is the smarmy, naughty guy we saw in "An Awfully Big Adventure" and "Bridget Jones’s Diary."

Freeman is part Jekyll, mostly Hyde, until his scheme to infiltrate a single parents meeting and prey on vulnerable moms throws his carefree life into a tailspin. Freeman ends up dating Suzie (Victoria Smurfit), who is taking care of Marcus, (Nicholas Hoult), the 12-year-old son of her neighbor Fiona (Toni Collette), who is suffering from extreme depression.

Marcus believes that Freeman would make a perfect match for his mother, and Freeman’s efforts to get rid of Marcus fail, especially after Fiona attempts suicide and ends up in the hospital. The ice in Freeman’s heart eventually begins to melt as he gets closer to Marcus, who helps Freeman grow up and learn to accept responsibility.

The relationship proves beneficial for Marcus as well, who seeks shelter from the bullies at school and his mother. With the help of Marcus, Freeman sets his sights on another single mother (Rachel Weisz), forcing Marcus to pretend to be his child. Even though Freeman has matured, the deception sets the stage for a showdown between his old habits and a desire to share his life with someone special.

Special is indeed the word to sum up this heartwarming and frequently funny comedy based on the novel by Nick Hornby ("High Fidelity"). Written (along with Peter Hedges) and directed by the "American Pie" team of Paul Weitz and Chris Weitz, "About a Boy" has a distinctive British look and tone. The screenplay is extremely faithful to Hornby’s novel, using inner dialogues to keep us in touch with the characters of Freeman and Marcus.

Instead of feeling like a gimmick, the narration becomes an extension of the characters. They allow us to become privy to private observations that are just as sharp and witty as the verbal ones. The actors are so good that they have no difficulty endearing us to their characters, but the narration gives us extra insight, like when Freeman is introduced to a kid and says one thing while thinking another.

When "About a Boy" isn’t being sweet, it’s bittersweet. It deals with the human condition on a realistic level, where the drama and comedy come from the characters and the situations. The dialogue is brisk and clever, and the writers never subject us to jokes. There is no need to. There’s enough honest humor in the characters.

We rally for Nicholas Hoult’s Marcus, who seemingly goes from one bad situation to the next, but thanks to his indomitable spirit, never gives up. Hoult is extraordinary as Marcus, creating a character who is obviously fragile and just needs a role model to believe in. Freeman may not be the perfect candidate, but we see in him the same ray of hope that Marcus does. Watching Hoult wear down Freeman is just one of the many pleasures of the film.

Toni Collette delivers another noteworthy performance as Fiona, a woman also in need of hope, while Rachel Weisz is beautiful and charming as the single mother with a 12-year-old son who believes she has found truth in Freeman.

Behind the camera, Paul Weitz and Chris Weitz do a wonderful job of elevating familiar material into a film that speaks from the heart to the heart. The "American Pie" films and "Down to Earth" with Chris Rock gave no indication that these two were capable of creating a film filled with sensitive, sympathetic characters and emotional ballast.

Like "Notting Hill," Universal Pictures chose to release this little gem up against the latest "Star Wars" film, which I believe will prove beneficial in the long run. I would rather see this film twice than "Attack of the Clones."


Hugh Grant, Rachel Weisz, Toni Collette, Nicholas Hoult. Directed by Paul Weitz and Chris Weitz. Rated PG-13. 100 Minutes.


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