About a Boy (2002)
“Growing up has nothing to do with age.”
About a Boy (2002)
Director: Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz
Cast: Hugh Grant, Nicholas Hoult, Toni Collette
Synopsis: A cynical, immature young man is taught how to act like a grown-up by a little boy.
If, back in 2002, you were casting a movie in which the lead character was a laddish, emotionally immature, womanising thirty-something, who would you cast in the part? Jude Law, maybe? Ewan McGregor? How about Clive Owen? They were all big stars in 2002, and all more than capable of projecting that devil-may-care attitude of the urban playboy. It’s safe to say that, if I was casting About a Boy, the last person I would have considered for the aforementioned role was floppy-haired upper-class verbal-ditherer Hugh Grant – which probably explains why I’m sat at a laptop writing about movies instead of out there somewhere making one. Although he’s inarguably miscast in the part of Will Freeman (geddit?), Grant’s versatility as an actor, combined with a hip haircut and a valiant attempt at removing some of the polish from that cut-glass accent, enables him to overcome what was a potentially disastrous casting decision. An everyman Hugh Grant is still miles posher than the average man in the street, but he has the ability to be likeable even when he’s playing caddish characters.
While Will isn’t a cad, exactly, his determination to shirk from any kind of responsibility means that his behaviour towards others is sometimes callous. He sees his life as a TV show in which he is the star and others merely make guest appearances; in order to avoid commitment, he religiously dumps any girlfriend after two months; as we never see him with friends, we must assume he has none, and the legacy of royalties from a popular Christmas song penned by his father means that he doesn’t have to work. And, although this kind of isolated lifestyle is inescapably sad, the screenwriters almost have us – and Will – believing he lives an enviable life. A life divided into half-hour units, each filled with leisure or pleasure. However, as the film constantly reminds us, no man is an island, and Freeman’s defences are eventually breached by the unlikely figure of a twelve-year-old boy.
Marcus Brewer (Nicholas Hoult – Warm Bodies, X-Men: First Class) is one of those wretched scapegoats that haunts every school playground in the country. His mum is an Earth Mother type who makes her son’s clothes, meaning he’s forced to attend wearing knitted coats and cardigans with rainbows on them. Bullying is inevitable, and if that wasn’t enough for a twelve-year-old to cope with, his mother’s also suffering from depression, and serves Marcus his breakfast while shedding floods of tears. When Freeman engineers a date with single mother Suzie (Victoria Smurfit) by posing as a single father at a single parents group, he’s despondent to find that Marcus, whose mother attends the same group, is to join them. Although Will and Marcus don’t initially hit it off, when Marcus’s mum tries to commit suicide, the boy realises that he needs a ‘back up’ in case she tries it again – and Will appears to be the only candidate.
Both Will and Marcus serve as narrators, and it’s a technique that reflects the duality of About a Boy. A comedy about a self-centred slacker and the bullied son of a suicidal mother is hardly obvious material for a comedy, but it works thanks to a fairly breezy tone which glosses over many of its darker aspects without sidestepping or trivialising them. Only in the final reel do things fall apart a little, with Marcus embarking on a suicidal mission to sing his version of ‘Killing Me Softly’ at a school rock concert which no kid in his right – or wrong – mind would consider. Ironically, this sequence is Hoult’s best in what is otherwise a thin and somewhat annoying performance.
(Reviewed 28th April 2015)