Monday, February 22, 2010

Review: "About a Boy" is Warm and Fuzzy

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 90 (of 2003) by Leroy Douresseaux

About a Boy (2002)
Running time: 101 minutes (1 hour, 41 minutes)
MPAA – PG-13 for brief strong language and some thematic elements
DIRECTORS: Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz
WRITERS: Peter Hedges and Chris Weitz & Paul Weitz (from a novel by Nick Hornsby)
PRODUCERS: Robert De Niro, Brad Epstein, Eric Fellner, and Jane Rosenthal
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Remi Adefarasin (D.o.P.)
EDITOR: Nick Moore
Academy Award nominee


Starring: Hugh Grant, Toni Collette, Nicholas Hoult, Rachel Weisz, and Sharon Small

Every now and then, Hugh Grant plays a role that is different from his usual role: the loveable, affable, and charming British man child thrown slightly off-balance by the aggressive woman. In About a Boy, Grant takes his boy child and turns him on his ear, not necessarily for the better.

Grant plays Will, a self-absorbed bachelor – a rich, single, child-free Londoner in his 30’s who suddenly discovers that all his friends have taken on the adult responsibilities of family life. First, he invents a toddler son in order to pass himself off as a single father so that he can date jilted mothers he meets in single parents club. He’s confident that he can leave the mums behind when he’s tired of them, but his machinations bring him into contact with Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a 12-year old boy with massive problems at school and a suicidal mother (Toni Collette) at home. Though the boy is his opposite in many ways, Marcus becomes Will’s friend, of a sort. He teaches the boy how to be cool, and Marcus helps will grow up.

It’s hard to believe that Chris and Paul Weitz could go from being the masterminds behind American Pie to making a movie that is so at once painful, yet so heartwarming and life affirming as About a Boy. What the Weitz brothers show again is the ability to let the actors take the story, whatever it is, and perform. That was the key to American Pie – how well the actors worked through the hoops and gimmicks given them by the filmmakers. In this case, the Weitzs and co-writer Peter Hedges (who adapted their script from a novel by Nick Hornsby) give the characters plenty to chew, but the characters here aren’t nearly as endearing as they were in Pie.

Many movie critics and fans felt that the Academy had robbed Hugh Grant of an Oscar nomination for his performance in Boy. The truth of the matter is that the character is so shallow and empty that any actor with at least film acting experience, if not talent, could have played the role. Playing Will as he was written is not an artistic or professional achievement (save for the paycheck); it would not be too farfetched to say that Will is pretty much just a character name in a script. I know that the central conceit is that Will is supposed to be a shallow and empty character, but Will isn’t a character. He’s just an empty cipher or caricature. We get the idea that Will is shallow when we see how easily he casts off his lady friends. I guess we’re supposed to assume that Will sitting around his apartment all day is another sign of his shallowness and emptiness. I just took it as a sign that the script writers didn’t know how to make any of those scenes visually interesting. Will fills the film with tiresome narrations about his selfishness and self-centeredness, when, after his first two “character enriching” speeches, we got the point. For a brief moment in the film, Will thinks he sees his long dead father. Sadly the movie doesn’t focus on Will’s relationship with his own father, although the movie story spends so much time telling us that Will could be “a father/father figure.” Certainly, it’s no stretch of the imagination to suspect that Will’s personality comes from something to do with his father. Heck, Will lives off his father’s song royalties. That’s why he doesn’t work, so obviously that’s something to explore.

Nicholas Hoult’s Marcus is much more interesting, perhaps because the story is really about him and how he makes two grown ups grow up. I won’t call his a great child performance, but it’s quite good. Marcus is world weary and cynical. Even at his young age (12 years), he’s already accepted that pretty much everything is beyond his control. He takes his lumps as if his torment was not only preordained, but also divinely ordained. Young Mr. Hoult makes us invest ourselves in Marcus’s destiny, and that’s more than I can say about the rest of the cast. We want him to win, to succeed, because he’s done nothing to be in the position he’s been in, and he has so much wisdom that he sees the practical solutions that other characters need to make their lives a little better.

Despite my reservations, I liked About a Boy. If you can tolerate Will’s narration and instead focus on Marcus’s, you’ll find a hero in the character. I understand that the filmmakers had to give the spotlight to Grant’s (the movie star) Will, when the film’s most interesting notions come from Marcus: people need other people and sometimes they need lots of other people to catch them when they fall. Take the film’s plague of self-examining voiceovers with a grain of salt and instead focus on people connecting. You’ll like this movie enough to feel a little warm and fuzzy at the end.

6 of 10

2003 Academy Awards: 1 nomination: “Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay” (Peter Hedges, Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz)

2003 BAFTA Awards: 2 nominations: “Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role” (Toni Collette) and “Best Screenplay – Adapted”

2003 Golden Globe Awards: 2 nominations: “Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy” and “Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy” (Hugh Grant)

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