Hugh Fidelity

It’s appropriate that Universal would open About a Boy against the latest installment in the Lucas juggernaut. Certainly it’s daring, which is the last thing one ever expected to say about a film starring Hugh Grant. Consider: Attack of the Clones is an enormous movie that’s as disposable as a broken action figure and about as valuable; Boy is a small film that reflects a world where “island living” promises happy seclusion but offers only loneliness and emotional retardation.

Will Freeman (Grant) lives on such an island — a North London apartment full of DVDs, CDs, men’s magazines and cappuccino machines. A rich-boy slacker living off the royalties of a wretched Christmas jingle (“Santa’s Super Sleigh”) penned by his one-hit-wonder dad, Will does nothing, wants nothing, needs nothing — and is, in his own proud estimation, something of a nothing himself. To the couple who ask him to be godfather to their newborn girl, he refuses, insisting, “No, I am this shallow.”

Will’s doppelganger is Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), the unhappy son of Fiona, a “daft fucking hippie” with suicidal tendencies played by Toni Collette, whose pale visage and red-rimmed eyes suggest she killed herself long ago. Twelve-year-old Marcus, as scruffy and uncool as Will is up-to-the-second hip, will suffer any indignation just to keep his mother from crying. Hoult gives a rich, nuanced performance, always looking ready to shout, smile or both.

Will and Marcus cross paths — accidentally, at first — and the two help each other evolve. Will teaches Marcus there’s more to life than his mother’s penchant for singing Roberta Flack with her eyes closed; Marcus shows Will there’s profound comfort to be taken from the company of others, especially Rachel (Rachel Weisz), a single mother who initially believes there’s depth to Will’s kiddie pool.

Grant has never felt more substantial or real. His newly shorn hair reveals a slightly weary and aging countenance, and the self-absorbed glint in his eyes that did so much of his acting for him in Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral has dimmed slightly. Will is worn out from doing nothing, and Grant plays him like a man ashamed of himself but too embarrassed to admit it or even do anything about it.

About a Boy, written and directed by American Pie‘s Chris and Paul Weitz, is the third cinematic adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel, and it’s easily the best. Fans of Hornby’s book might scoff at the Weitzes’ feel-good ending, but the film’s dramatic depth strikes the right chord. So skip Star Wars, this weekend at least; you know Anakin Skywalker grows up to become Darth Vader, but what will Marcus and Will become when they grow up? Us, probably.

Categories: Movies