The stakes could not be smaller in About A Boy; the third act narrative tension here revolves around child’s potential embarrassment about taking part in a school show. And yet Chris and Paul Weitz’s adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel is a minor classic in the rom-com stakes, focusing on a ‘blank’ man who finds his mojo through his identification with the trails of an adolescent boy. Casting, location work and a precise sense of time and place all help, but About a Boy is one of these happy films that just works.
‘No man is an island,’ quotes Will Freeman, whose on-the-nose name hints at the deeper issues of identity alluded to here. Played with gusto by Hugh Grant, Will is a familiar scallywag, living off royalties from his father’s perennial festive hit, unable to connect to women, friends and the outside world. His misanthropic view is challenged when his predatory attitude to single mothers accidentally drops him through a trap-door and into a mentoring relationship with Marcus (Nicholas Hoult). Marcus is bullied, largely because of his mother Fiona and her suicidal tendencies; played by Toni Collette, Fiona is struggling with life, a position skilfully shown by her glance at the stacked dishes in her kitchen cupboard. Will, reluctantly, takes Marcus under his wing to watch Countdown on C4 and shop for trainers, but the boy’s desire to please his own mother sends him in the direction of humiliation, and even if he can’t stop him from singing Roberta Flack at a talent show, he is, at least, man enough to share the ignominy.
Much like Rachel (Rachel Weisz), the eventual object of Will’s desire, each character has something to unpack, and About A Boy’s cheerful cynicism rubs them up against each other just enough to strike sparks. There’s a tremendous scene in which Fiona storms into a restaurant to accuse Will of grooming her son; his reaction, passionate but logical, demonstrates unexpected depth to his character, much as Fiona’s eventual willingness to sit down and listen speaks of her own need for connection.
With perfect leads, a funky sense of London, some sweet songs by Badly Drawn Boy and a gentle sense of comic timing, About A Boy is a high-point in the resumes of all concerned. Without seeking to do too much, it’s a comedy that deftly navigates issues about parenting and masculinity, and stands with the downtrodden in a heart-warming and wholesome finale.