About a BoyReviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 11/01/05 23:15:37
Admit it, it didn't sound great at first, did it? A care-free, childish bachelor is forced to face life's realities and grow up after befriending a young boy. It sounded like Adam Sandler was inflicting 'Big Daddy' upon us again. And yes, those statements do to some extent happen in 'About A Boy'. But certainly not in the way you expect them to.'About A Boy' starts off with two voice-overs. The first comes from Will (Hugh Grant), a thirty something who seemingly has everything. He has no need for a job, as he lives off the royalties from a Christmas song his dead father wrote, which is trotted out every year. He has a great car, a great flat and more importantly for Will, has no responsibilities and no-one depending upon him. As he happily remarks to a friend who thinks he has hidden depths, he really is this shallow. And he has a new avenue to explore when it comes to finding dates and new one-night stands: single mothers. The theory being that they'll be so grateful for someone to lavish attention upon them, that they'll fall easily for Will's charms.
The second voice-over comes from Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a 12 year old boy who comes from a single mother, Fiona (Toni Collette). But Marcus is an unhappy little boy. He doesn't fit in at school, with his funny haircut and habit for singing out loud, while Fiona is a borderline suicidal hippy, with no-one else to look out for Marcus. And because of Will's new habit of preying on single mothers, his and Marcus' paths are soon entangled together, as Marcus begins to visit Will's house every day.
It's easy to think that 'About A Boy' will fall into cliche pretty easily. After all, Will is just an over-grown boy, while Marcus has been forced to grow up just far too quickly. But easy sentimentality and convenient answers are deftly avoided here, in a film that looks for genuine emotional truths rather than easy laughs. There are no scenes revolving around puke (the only puke coming from Fionas suicide attempt) or other bodily fluids, or being hit in the balls with a heavy object here. Instead, Paul and Chris Weitzs direction is much more subtle and clever than that. For any comedy like this to work, the direction can't be over-powering or broad, but character focused and the brothers keep it admirably restrained. The film is bright and sunny to keep it appropriately cinematic, and they have a fine eye for the cluttered detail of everyday life. Despite being set in London, it doesn't fall into the usual middle-class cliches of a Working Title film, with the Weitzs wisely not dwelling on insufferable wacky sidekicks or urbanely witty suburbanites. They're much more concerned with 'real' people and it makes a refreshing change. The rhythm of the comedy is razor sharp and their use of editing and scene transitions creates some of the best gags alone.
But this is much more than a technical lesson in creating a comedy. The screenplay is mature and finely tuned with genuine food for thought. A restaurant yelling match between Will and Fiona over just what he's doing with a 12 year old boy in his house each day, never descends into cliche, with Will neatly asking the question, just what is Fiona doing letting Marcus take on her problems by himself? It's this adult and frank approach to the issues here that make 'About A Boy' much more than its synopsis sounds. But this isn't a heavy, soul searching exercise either. Despite its suicidal mother and bullied little boy, it's also very, very funny. Will charming himself into the single parents meeting with his invented son, Ned, is a terrific scene, and Will's dry voice-over keeps the chuckles coming. There's an argument that, right at the end, the film finally falls into cliche with a potential cornball ending, but it's an ending that the film absolutely deserves. It's played everything honest and open up to that moment, so it comes across as a genuine climax of the events rather than something tacked on to get a final, big laugh. 'About A Boy' is a rare film that really makes you care about the characters and earns its one 'big' moment at the end.
And the performances are terrific across the board. Collette is one of the most undervalued actresses today and is great as Fiona, neatly sidestepping the cliches that her character could fall into. Hoult is terrific too, perfectly nailing the sadness and frustration of a confused and vulnerable little boy. Some say he's wooden at times, but his ocassional flat delivery is keeping with the character - how many 12 year olds can express their emotions adequately?
And then there's Hugh Grant. Now many critics (myself included) will criticise Grant for essentially playing the same part over and over again, and at first glance that's what he's doing here. But look closer. This is a character, who at the beginning is a complete twat to say the least (preying on single mothers?!), yet Grant makes us involved in him, and even like him. This is a character that has a full and complete character arc, without beating you over the head with it. If the Academy gave out Oscars for comic roles more than once in a blue moon, Grant would have had his first nomination sown up. But more fool them, for this is an astonishing performance. Grant gives us fleeting glimpses of the emptiness within Will without over-emoting or milking the scenes for all their worth. In several confrontation scenes, you can see the nagging pain of the character just below his confident exterior, as Grant touches the grace notes without making it obvious what Will is feeling. It's a pent-up, fragile performance at once very funny (many scenes are rendered just from Grant's flippant delivery or facial expression), but also quietly touching. This maturity of performance shines through in the afore-mentioned restaurant scene, but also the scenes just between him and Hoult. It's a performance to be proud of, as it makes much more of Will than you would think possible.
If there's another character in the film deserving of praise, then it's Badly Drawn Boy who provides the soundtrack. Delicately done, it eschews convention and cliche to give the film a lithe and sprightly quality to it. One track in particular, A Minor Incident, says much more about suicide than any over-written speech ever could.There would certainly be some who would wonder just why 'About A Boy' merits the full five stars. After all, it's rarely laugh out funny, just consistently amusing. But it gets the five stars because it's much more than that, it's a mature and touching film that isn't afraid to look at real emotions and real people, without trivialising them or dumbing down. It's a film where the characters seem like honest, genuine people who you really, really end up rooting for. And that, my friends, is the magic of movies in one sentence.
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