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About A Boy 2002 ****

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.

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  1. The soundtrack. Timeless. I listen to it about once a year. And, there’s something about this movie and its music’s culture that makes me yearn to travel to the United Kingdom. My #1 Bucket List when things get better out there 🙂

    • Consider yourself invited! Some movies date badly, but this one dates well. Although the director is American, it does capture the mundane charm of British day to day.

  2. @screening idle

    I just visited your Jurassic World: Camp Cretacious post and can second that one is not able to leave a comment. It states that you have to be logged in and has a link to login. That login tries to make me login to Screen Idle,not wordpress. So it would appear that you need to change a setting in the jetpack plugin. Best of luck.

    • It is, and a precursor of the good roles he’s had of late. Stands up well over the years. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I would never have suggested that you had! Hornby was super-fashionable for a while, maybe not now. Totally agree that High Fidelity as a film has some silly bits which grate, but I think that About A Boy is rather deft in the way that the boy’s arrested development strikes a chord with an adult who has a similarly emotionally stunted growth. It’s a simple idea, and while the Britpop London cool thing is horribly dated now, the film survives and works in a way that I feel High Fidelity doesn’t quite endure. About A Boy’s title covers both the Grant character and they kid; they’re both just boys, and the guitar climax is as much cringe as triumph, and that still works.

  4. Had been on a bit of a Hornby kick in the day. And like you say, the twee kiddo world stakes at play left me feeling a little like I’d just eaten a whole package of double stuff oreos. Hornby isn’t always great, and even in the perennial favorite High Fidelity (much loved for it’s selection of actors and music as it represented a life I’d lived with buddies about a decade prior) has many cloying and silly sequences that just bespeak teenage love rather than adult life. But that that also may have been some of the point . . . are we “adults” in the sense of our parents or grandparents? And were they? When Grant suddenly steps onstage with electric guitar . . . you’re not powered along with his chords you’re thinking “Really???”

  5. Agreed! Grant has proved that he’s a good actor since 2004, but this was arguably the turning point for him!

  6. Yes, he was great in The Gentleman at the start of the year, and in a recent BBC show called A Very British Scandal. Choosy, but still good.

  7. Awesome! Wondered if it was just me, but from nothing, About A Boy conjures up something special. Thanks for the comment!

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