About a Boy
directed by Chris & Paul Weitz
(Universal, 2002)

Will's friends are extremely concerned about him. He's in his late 30s. His relationships never last more than a couple of months. At this rate, he'll never start a family of his own.

Christine, especially, is beside herself. If you're not careful, she tells Will over dinner, "you'll end up childless and alone." "Fingers crossed," is the dry reply.

In the newest film adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel, About a Boy features Hugh Grant as Will -- and, if you've ever seen Grant in a movie, you've seen parts of this role. But it's here -- and in this scene -- that he perfects his slightly aloof, aristocratic British bachelor. Grant's infinitesimal hesitation, his brief cigarette puff, his offhand delivery of "fingers crossed" is great comic timing.

Thing is, Will's perfectly happy. He doesn't have to work, thanks to royalties off a song his father wrote. He has plenty of time, carefully divided into half-hour increments, to do what he enjoys: Taking baths. Getting his hair carefully and fashionably mussed. Watching television.

After an early offer of becoming godfather to his friends' daughter is rejected as "disturbing" -- "You know me; I'd never remember her birthday until she turned 18, then I'd probably take her out and get her drunk" -- the mother reacts with horror: I know you're superficial, she says, but I thought there might be more depth to you than that. "Oh, no, no, you've always had that wrong," Will replies. "I really am this shallow."

He puts that amply on display when trolling for single women. Even better, single mums -- compared to their exes, he knows, he looks like a prince.

That lands Will squarely in the life of young Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a boy whose single mom is a messy bundle of emotional instability. Marcus ends up tagging along on one of Will's dates when Mum (Toni Collette) needs a break, and soon figures out that the toddler son Will has invented as a pickup tactic doesn't really exist.

I'll keep my mouth shut, Marcus tells Will, if you let me hang out with you. And maybe you could date my mum.

The date is a disaster, but soon Marcus is stopping by to watch TV after school. Marcus is a social outcast: goofy haircut, absurdly uncool taste in music, homely looking sweaters over his school uniform. And his fate is sealed by his mother, who yells "I love you!" as he crosses the schoolyard to classes. How much more uncool could a preteen boy get?

In fits and starts, Will feels the urge to help Marcus be just a little less painfully shunned, to try to help him blend in so the bullies don't zero in, to make friends. And of course, in the process, the cynical Will will learn to be a little less Peter Pan, a little more a grownup man.

I have to say my main quibble with About a Boy is that I know people who are quite happy being single and childless. To infer, as the movie does, that those people are doomed to unhappiness and lives that don't matter, is ridiculous.

But where About a Boy is on more solid ground is as a comedy about an emotionally undeveloped person coming of age. Hugh Grant has had ample opportunity to find the right balance of suavity and vulnerability as Will, and as a comedian, he's hit his stride.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 27 September 2003

Buy it from Amazon.com.