'About a Boy'

It's no use pretending "About a Boy" doesn't have warmth and charm, because it does. But denial is tempting, because it's also clear that we're meant to like this Hugh Grant-starring human comedy more than we actually do. That's because there's a potential for something better still that never manages to get realized.

Much of the success the film has is because of its underlying source material, a wonderful comic novel by Britain's Nick Hornby, one of the deftest writers around, whose earlier "High Fidelity" was the basis of the exceptional film starring John Cusack.

But even without that Stephen Frears-directed example of how to do Hornby right, it's not difficult to see where this satisfying film, directed (and written, along with Peter Hedges) by brothers Paul Weitz & Chris Weitz, comes up shorter than we'd like. Though they also did the forgettable "Down to Earth," the Weitzes are best known for their debut film, "American Pie," which brought more humanity and sharpness to the teenage gross-out genre than anyone anticipated. But with "About a Boy," which comes burdened with the expectations of four major production entities (Universal, Studio Canal, Tribeca and Working Title), the reverse has happened.

Instead of adding to unpromising material, the Weitzes have ended up softening promising stuff, subtly homogenizing and mainstreaming a deceptively quirky scenario. They were doubtless attracted to the project's honesty and style and hoped to do it justice, but their beats are mostly standard ones and they intuitively head for the middle of the road.

Although "About a Boy" has a lot to recommend it compared with much of what emanates from the studios, even its best points come with asterisks attached.

Its star, Grant, is a case in point. He plays one of a pair of unlikely protagonists, the pointedly named Will Freeman, a self-centered London single guy who's never had a real job or a relationship that lasted longer than two months. Living on the royalties of a hugely popular song written by his late father, he considers being his niece's godfather way too much responsibility and protests mightily whenever people see any depth in him, proclaiming, "I really am this shallow."

The script gives Will a series of great voice-over riffs, from his insistence that he for one is a man who is an island to his determination to be the star of the Will Show, which is definitely not an ensemble drama. Grant handles them expertly, but though he is a born blithe spirit, as an actor he has too much likability for us to buy him as callow and distant.

"About a Boy's" plot begins with Will's discovery of attention-starved single moms as perfect dating prey. He makes up a 2-year-old son named Ned and goes to meetings of the wonderfully named SPAT (Single Parents Alone Together), where he meets the attractive Suzie (Victoria Smurfit). On their first date, she brings along Marcus, the 12-year-old son of one of her friends.

As it happens, the film has already introduced Marcus. He's the co-protagonist, the son of Fiona (Toni Collette, who can be anyone and do it well), aptly described by Will as a "daft hippie."

But although his mother, burdened with depression serious enough to make her suicidal, doesn't know it, Marcus is tortured at school by sadistic peers and has accepted his lot as "one of the people who doesn't have a good time in life."

As Marcus, Nicholas Hoult, who's been a working actor since he was 8, is rather good in a wise-beyond-his-years way, but once again, he seems to be more a practiced Hollywood version of a weird kid than he needs to be.

The thrust of "About a Boy" is how Will, through his association with Marcus, is dragged kicking and screaming into the human race, how he discovers that life without meaning is, well, meaningless.

Because a gradually thawing Will plays more to Grant's strengths, the second part of the film, helped as well by Rachel Weisz as a love interest, is much more fun. But it is still hard not to feel that this film is pushing us too hard, slickly trying to seem more honest than it actually is.

It's not giving anything away to say that the last shot of "About a Boy" is someone's broadly beaming happy face. It's not that the film shouldn't have a happy ending; though the book's closing section is quite different, it is definitely upbeat. But reducing everything to a happy face is more simplistic, and more typically Hollywood, than this material deserves.

MPAA rating: PG-13, for brief strong language and some thematic elements. Times guidelines: relatively mild material, suitable for young teen audiences.

'About a Boy'

Hugh Grant...Will

Nicholas Hoult...Marcus

Toni Collette...Fiona

Rachel Weisz...Rachel

Universal Pictures and StudioCanal present a Tribeca/Working Title production, released by Universal. Director Paul Weitz & Chris Weitz. Producers Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro, Brad Epstein, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner. Executive producers Nick Hornby, Lynn Harris. Screenplay by Peter Hedges and Chris Weitz & Paul Weitz, based on the book by Nick Hornby. Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin. Editor Nick Moore. Costume designer Joanna Johnston. Music Badly Drawn Boy. Production designer Jim Clay. Art director Gary Freeman. Set decorator John Bush. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

In general release.

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