Providence's Alternative Source!

Oh, Hugh kid!
Child is father to the cad in About a Boy

About a Boy. Directed by Paul and Chris Weitz. Written by Peter Hedges and Paul and Chris Weitz based on the novel by Nick Hornby. With Hugh Grant, Toni Collette, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, and Nat Gastiain Tena. A Universal Pictures release. At the Apple Valley, Entertainment, Hoyts, Opera House, Showcase and Tri-Boro cinemas.

[About a Boy] It's not just female singletons who are miserable and humiliated in the London dating scene. Even before Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones wrote her diary, Nick Hornby was bewailing his prolonged adolescence in fitfully funny but more often fey novels like High Fidelity and About a Boy. Director Stephen Frears and star John Cusack, an unlikely but serendipitous combo, made a respectable if overlong comedy of the former. Taking on the latter is the even odder coupling of Paul and Chris Weitz, creators of the scatological and moralistic American Pie, and the sometimes delightful but more often frustrating Hugh Grant. The makings of a blind date from Hell, perhaps, yet the three sensibilities combine for the most successful date movie so far this year.

Give Grant most of the credit. Since his scene-stealing turn in Bridget Jones, he's resolved to get in touch with his inner shit. No more of the irritating bumblings, the hemmings and hawings, that were meant to conceal the arrogant and callow but mordantly funny bastard that is his screen essence. He's discarded the guise of the lovable buffoon and acknowledged not the neglected child but the incorrigible cad within.

In this film his name is Will, and he's a London slacker with a trust fund and bad if expensive haircut (always a cue to Grant's persona, his hair here makes him look like a cross between Lou Reed and Anthony Perkins in Psycho) living on the residuals of his late father's one big songwriting success, a perennial Christmas ditty titled "Santa's Super Sleigh." He's free to live a life of utter idleness, comfort, and futility; the only catch is that he has nothing to talk about once the conversation turns to "So what do you do?" A big handicap when it comes to meeting women.

Through mischance and folly, Will decides that the answer is not to get a job or engage in some meaningful or altruistic activity but to pretend to be a single dad with an imaginary son. That way he can meet single mothers -- who are no doubt eager to find new mates to rectify the shortcomings of their exes -- and pretend to have something. It all makes sense when described in Grant's superciliously ingenuous voiceover narration, which incorporates some of Hornby's better prose.

But if Will has too little life to deal with, 12-year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) has too much. His single mother, Fiona (Toni Collette), is a hippie holdover who refuses to let Marcus indulge in the consumerist pop culture that allows for peer acceptance. Instead, she indoctrinates him in the value of self-reliance and political correctness and the beauty of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly." Hence he is tormented in school. And at home, too, when Fiona sinks into suicidal doldrums. As Marcus, newcomer Nicholas Hoult cannily evokes the terrible gravity, innocence, and absurdity of a child thrust into adulthood before having learned the self-defense of irony.

It's only fair that Will and Marcus become entangled, and that Will's fiction of being a father come true, sort of, and turn him into the kind of man worthy of the girl of his dreams. For his part, Marcus gets a grown-up version of the ideal 12-year-old, one who can afford to buy him the CDs and running shoes that will make him popular, or at least less abused. Their inarticulate bonding has a crude, convincing, sometimes hilarious grace that might be a slice of the Weitzes' American Pie sensibility, adolescent angst, and asininity minus the fart jokes. But the Weitzes' contribution might also be the kind of sentimentality that's the flip side of gross-out humor (just check out the Farrelly Brothers' decline, if not Robin Williams's). The harsher edges of Hornby's novel (it took place in the early '90s, with the suicide of Kurt Cobain a hovering, nihilistic presence) are glibly smoothed over, and Marcus's growing pains and Will's lack of growth pass painlessly into a contrived, if very funny, conclusion.

Neither, as you might expect, are women given much consideration. Collette's Fiona is a whiner, Rachel Weisz's dream girl is just that, and Ellie (Nat Gastiain Tena), Marcus's punker pal from the novel, is almost written out of the script. As a date movie, About a Boy may be one-sided, but I think the girls will know what it's all about just as well.

Issue Date: May 17 - 23, 2002