ABOUT A BOY
Directors: Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz
Cast: Hugh Grant, Marcus Hoult, Toni Collette, Rachel Weisz
MPAA Rating: (for brief strong language and some thematic elements)
Running Time: 1:40
Release Date: 5/17/02
Review by Mark Dujsik
The title About a Boy is a deceiving one. The film is actually about two boysóone who grew up too quickly and one who just never grew up. One cares about others to the point of depriving himself, and the other cares about himself to the point of denying others. One has never had a chance to enjoy his life, and the other is simply letting his life pass him by. Both are the products of their surroundings. One has been poor all his life and must try to take care of his incredibly depressed mother, while the other lives lushly off of the royalties made from a Christmas song his father wrote. The first has lived with rejection and desperation for too long, and the other has made a habit of avoiding any situation where such emotions would result. The two meet by coincidence, but they ultimately need each otheróitís just that one knows it and the other doesnít.
One of the boys is named Will (Hugh Grant), a thirty-eight-year-old loafer who arranges his day in thirty-minute intervaled blocks of time. His usual activities consist of watching TV (mostly game shows), shopping for new toys (CDs, DVDs, etc.), getting his hair professionally disheveled (four blocks of time), and exercising (playing pool). He objects to the saying "No man is an island," because itís more like "Every man is an island." On the other end of the spectrum is Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a twelve-year-old social outcast whose mother Fiona (Toni Collette) raises him on her own. At school, he has no friends and is savagely mocked. At home, his mom cries a lot, and he has no idea why. In Willís adventures of living extravagantly without making connections to other people, he discovers that single mothers make pleasant, short-term companions. He discovers a group called SPAT, Single Parents Alone Together, and attends a meeting, making up a young son named Ned. Will comes into the good graces of a member of the group and joins her, along with Marcus (Fiona says she canít go), to a SPAT picnic. Bringing Marcus home, they discover that his mother has attempted suicide, and Will and Marcusí lives are forever intertwined.
The film traces the boysí budding friendship and the way they eventually grow to help each other. The movie was directed by Chris and Paul Weitz, whose previous endeavors include the original American Pie and the dreadful Down to Earth. Here they have a screenplay (written by the two along with Peter Hedges) that doesnít rely on gimmicks or genre constrictions and conventions. Based on the novel by Nick Hornby, who also wrote the source material for Stephen Frearsí High Fidelity, the script offers honest insights into the minds of these two men. Hornbyís work has the feeling of testimonials. These are things men think and understand and the way they think and understand them. Voice-overs allow us, of course, to hear their thoughts, but instead of simply laying out the scene, establishing location, or offering colorful commentary (the typical narrative functions of a voice-over), the script gives us thought processes, truthful reactions, and personal observations.
The film understands the thrust of its material. It never attempts to lump its narrative into something conventional or straightforward. This is a slice of life movie. Itís not about what happens but how the characters react to what happens, and as a result, they are not simplified caricatures but understandable, sympathetic people. Will certainly has a social problem, but instead of glossing over his tendencies to make him more likable, the movie allows him to indulge. Weíre never given a simple explanation for his behavior, which is just as well because it probably isnít that simple. The same goes for Fiona. Sheís utterly depressed, but thereís never an attempt to psychoanalyze. We assume itís because of her divorce and the pressure of raising a child on her own, and thatís good enough to allow her to develop. Marcus accepts his lot in life. There isnít a big scene where he does something to impress everyone in the school (in fact, when he does do something risky in front of the school, heís laughed at). Any form of acceptance he receives from other people is small and takes time to fermentójust as it does in life.
Portraying these characters is a cast of highly competent British (and one Australian) actors. Toni Collette again plays a troubled mother (she did so before in The Sixth Sense) and really delves into the relatively small role, in terms of screentime. The role demands a performance where the overall effect of the performance remains even in scenes where her character is not present, and Collette delivers. Appearing in another, much smaller role is Rachel Weisz, who enters late as Willís love interest. In the key performances, Nicholas Hoult exudes a quiet, internal timidity without becoming overwhelmed by the other, "flashier" external performances. This is Hugh Grantís show, though, and after playing and excelling at both the gentle, oaf and the self-serving, scoundrel, itís fun to watch him play a sort of hybrid of both these types.
About a Boy contains a generous amount of humor, but it all stems from the filmís characters and the truth of its scenario and execution. The film is a collection of small pleasures, from its portrayal of modern man as a boy to the distinctly British feel (donít ask me to explain; itís simply a feeling that emanates from the film) to the sense that the movie doesnít revolve around its setup but its characters. Thatís the sign of a successful human comedyóone that admits and indulges in the fact that its characters are human.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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