About a Boy – 5 stars
I normally watch this during the holidays, but it is now on the HBO rotation, and I’ve been enjoying it in segments. Based on Nick Hornby’s novel (Hornby was also one of the screenwriters), this is a fine story of a charming but vacuous and intentionally isolated rich guy (Will, played by Hugh Grant) who corrals a neighborhood boy into playing his son in the hopes it will impress a romantic target. He is soon brought into the boy’s world, against all his selfish instincts.
This is a very funny film. The comedic set pieces (including a harrowing talent show, the death of a park swan, and awkward support groups) are masterful. The narrative is punctuated by voiceovers from Marcus or Will, and their observations are either hilarious or sentimental. The message is A Christmas Carol – no man is an island, and we are defined by how we treat each other, but for every sweet note, there is an arch counterpoint. My favorite is Will’s voiceover upon meeting Marcus’s earthy, liberal, disapproving mother, Fiona (Toni Collette) over lunch, where he lords his non-vegan ways by ordering steak while, in his mind, deriding her Yeti-like sweater.
Grant is usually reliant on an affected, stammering, faux-shy schtick (his performances in Notting Hill and Love Actually are of this stripe; cloying and relentlessly puppydog). But here, he’s pretty much a dick, playing Will as someone who enjoys a relationship only to the extent it provides him an opportunity or the solace of being kind-hearted. Once there is heavy lifting, he is out, as Grant explains:
Grant is really quite good in the role, especially upon the realization that he is worth nothing in this world. Nicholas Hoult plays Marcus with a sweet perseverance that never once smacks of child-actor manipulation, and Collette is truly vulnerable as Marcus’ crunchy, depressed mother, who is oblivious to the needs of Marcus, his desperation to save her, and the burdens she places on his shoulders.
It’s also heartening to know that poor, sweet Marcus
has grown up to date