Thursday, July 20, 2017

Father Figure

Film: About a Boy
Format: HBO Go on rockin’ flatscreen.

I still have a large number of movies that I need to watch, but the number is getting smaller and smaller. What this means for me is that availability at any given time is far reduced from what it used to be. I used to have tons of available movies to watch on NetFlix, but that’s no longer the case. What this means is I need to find targets of opportunity when I can. As it happens, I own a copy of About a Boy, but scrolled past it tonight, and didn’t have a host of other options. Nothing against the film; it’s just not what I was in the mood for, but I persevered.

Actually, it’s kind of a sweet movie. Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) lives the most carefree life that can be imagined. His father, years before, wrote a Christmas song that turned out to be incredibly popular, and Will has more or less lived off his father’s royalties that he has inherited. He has no job because he’s never needed one. What he’s really interested in is women, and even then he’s interested for just a few months before wanting to move on. Through the auspices of some friends, he’s set up on a blind date with a woman who turns out to be a single mom.

This is an epiphany for Will, because while the relationship means that he needs to feign interest in her child, he discovers that really minimal effort on his part offers huge benefits. And, just when he’s ready to call it quits on the relationship, she breaks up with him because she decides she’s not ready for anything serious. So, Will decides that single moms are where it’s at and he discovers a support group for single parents, figuring that that’s where young, attractive single moms will be.

The narrative splits frequently in About a Boy between Will and Marcus Brewer (Nicholas Hoult). Marcus is 12 and lives with his mother Fiona (Toni Collette). Marcus is, for lack of a better way to put it, pretty much genetically engineered to be bullied. In fact, he’s so picked on at school that even the other social rejects stop hanging out with him because they get picked on more for talking to Marcus. His mother dresses him weirdly, puts odd ideas into his head, seems to have decided that the sort of things that other kids are into (and thus things he could have in common with them) are wrong. She’s even decided that he’s a vegetarian without asking him.

To get these plots together, we need to get Will and Marcus together. This happens when Will attempts to date Suzie (Victoria Smurfit) from the single parents’ group. Suzie is Fiona’s friend and she has charge of Marcus for the day. After Will and Marcus bond slightly when Will covers for Marcus’s accident involving a duck and a loaf of bread at the park, they return home to find that Fiona has attempted to kill herself. Naturally this leaves Marcus somewhat scarred, and he reaches out to Will, who becomes something like a surrogate big brother to him.

And, well, About a Boy turns out to be something of a coming-of-age story, but in this case, it’s Will who is coming of age. He discovers that he actually likes spending time with Marcus and that his own life has been pretty empty. When he meets Rachel (Rachel Weisz), he realizes that the only thing that might actually be interesting about him is his relationship with Marcus, who she assumes is his son. And at this time, Marcus has discovered his own crush on a girl named Ellie (Natalie Tena) at school.

Let’s talk cast for a moment. I think Hugh Grant can be effective, and About a Boy is right about at the end of his run of being legitimately cast as a young, bumbling, romantic lead. It’s a role he always did pretty well and one that he moved into with this film gracefully. It’s one of his better performances because, while this does float around in rom-com land, it doesn’t specifically live there. Will is kind of an oaf, but he’s not rom-com oafish. He’s legitimately an oaf for a good part of the movie, and he’s still an oaf while he’s figuring out how not to be one.

I also love the presence of Toni Collette. I wish Toni Collette would work in films more because I think she’s always a great presence on screen. In this case, it’s her presence that prevents this from being a romantic comedy. Marcus tries desperately at first to set Will up with his mother and it clearly can’t and won’t work, and the film doesn’t force it to work for us, because that would legitimately spoil the whole thing.

And then there’s Nicholas Hoult. Hoult had a career before About a Boy, but this was his first really major role. He’s completely believable as Marcus as a weird kid who is mildly precocious in some ways and is saddled with a mother who, unbeknownst to her, has made his life difficult in real ways. He also looks exactly like you expect a 12-year-old Nicholas Hoult to look, Vulcanish eyebrows and all.

The truth is that About a Boy is never going to be a deeply meaningful film, and won’t be the sort of film that comes up when people talk about movies that reinvent cinema. It’s not meant to be. It really isn’t a lot more than just a sweet story about some very dysfunctional people who figure out that they’re a little less dysfunctional when they’re around each other. And really, sometimes that’s enough.

Why to watch About a Boy: It aims (and hits) both romance and comedy without being a romantic comedy.
Why not to watch: There are a number of times you’ll be embarrassed for Marcus because of just how oddly sheltered and socially clueless he is.


  1. Hugh Grant + terrible title had me going into this kicking and screaming, but I was surprised by how much I liked this movie. I'd happily recommend it.

    1. Yeah, the title is admittedly one that is going to get you thinking in a particular direction.

      I don't have a huge problem with Hugh Grant. I don't like all of his movies, but he's demonstrated a particular charm at times and he's done enough good work that I am willing to give him a little benefit of the doubt. The doesn't mean he gets a lot of leeway--I'll stop watching something like Two Weeks Notice 10 minutes in, but I'd be willing to at least give Grant the chance.

  2. I've only seen it once, and it was years back, but I remember *loving* this movie and wanting to see it again... I just never have, for no real reason. I'd love to check it out again sometime.

    1. There's a lot to like here. It's not anything that will change your life, but there's a lot here that is good and real, and that's often enough.