Movie review, 'About a Boy'

EntertainmentMoviesChris WeitzDeathRachel WeiszNirvana (music group)Nick Hornby

"About a Boy" is likely to be categorized as a romantic comedy, because people like labels and that's the one that seems to fit best, at least in terms of tone. The key relationship here, however, isn't between a man and a woman but between a man and a 12-year-old boy - no, it's not that kind of movie, but rather the story of a loner adult who learns to let someone else into his heart.

Adapted from Nick Hornby's 1998 novel (his follow-up to "High Fidelity"), the film also resembles a romantic comedy in that what it's trying to achieve is much harder than it looks. "About a Boy" is such a seamless piece of entertainment, deftly balancing its serious and comic elements, that you don't pause to consider what truly tricky material this is. A 38-year-old selfish cad who, despite being childless, joins a single parents' group to pick up women - he finds that single mothers ultimately are not ready for commitment and break up with him, thus sparing him guilt - finds his life complicated when the son of a mentally ill woman, whose friend the man has dated (you still following?), latches onto him as a kindred spirit.

Even with such a setup, you figure the movie eventually will lead to the kid convincing the man and his mom that they're meant to be together, thus forming a happy family for everyone. But directors Paul and Chris Weitz, who share a screenwriting credit with Peter Hedges, are sympathetic to Hornby's vision that life is more complicated and interesting than that, even as they make significant changes to the story's final third.

Hugh Grant plays Will, an aging London bachelor who does "nothing" for a living. He's not particularly proud of this fact; it just is what it is. His father wrote a classic holiday song, "Santa's Super Sleigh," so Will can live off the royalties and spend his time watching TV and keeping up on cutting-edge CDs and high-end slacker fashions; he pays a hairdresser to maintain his "carefully disheveled" look. He wishes he were ambitious only when he considers that doing something, anything, would make him more interesting to women.

Fans of the book might react to the casting of Grant as both too spot-on - his previous roles and own life line up a bit neatly with such a not-ready-for-commitment bachelor - and not gritty enough. To be sure, Grant's Will is more upscale than Hornby's; the book was set at the peak of the grunge-rock era, and Will wasn't slumming as a passionate Nirvana fan.

The movie has dropped the Nirvana subplot altogether - including the epiphany of Kurt Cobain's suicide, which wasn't so dramatically effective anyway. So be it; it's hard to argue that any of these changes - or the casting - hurts the movie.

Count the chronically underrated Grant among those who make what they do look easier than it is. People may not have thought he was acting as the hesitant romantic leads of "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill," yet the sly, wicked performance that energized "Bridget Jones's Diary" also gained him zero end-of-the-year recognition.

Grant is closer to "Bridget Jones" mode here, yet he must carry the movie, unsympathetic traits and all. In one early scene, close friends of Will's, a married couple, ask him to be their daughter's godfather, and he details why he would be an inappropriate choice: He would forget all of her birthdays up to age 18, at which point he would take her out, get her drunk and perhaps even try to "shag" her.

Another actor might have played the scene strictly for laughs to ensure we'd still like him, or emphasized the character's anguished self-loathing to earn our sympathy. Grant gets the laugh and the concurrent shudder of horror, shared by the mother and audience, by delivering the lines with an on-the-surface shrug while communicating a deeper, darker sense of self-awareness. This is a man who has learned not to spend excess energy dwelling on flaws of which he's nonetheless ashamed.

The movie is told from the dual points of view of Will and 12-year-old Marcus (impressive newcomer Nicholas Hoult), whose unreformed hippie mother, Fiona (Toni Collette), has taught him several habits that get him ridiculed at school, such as singing "Rainy Days and Mondays" to himself.

Rarely is a kid - and his relationship with an adult (Will) - so specifically written and acted.

Marcus gets picked on, but he's a realist who doesn't allow himself self-pity, mostly because he feels responsible for his mother, who's prone to middle-of-the-day crying jags and worse. When Will reflexively defends Marcus from a park cop - the boy has accidentally killed a duck with a rock-hard loaf of bread, and Will comes up with an inventive lie to cover up the mishap - Marcus realizes he has found a rare ally.

The boy's mother may be clueless about why he's unpopular in school, but Will gets it. Marcus thus is willing to overlook Will's lying - the man's behavior isn't so unlike his classmates' - while Will isn't used to having someone read him so clearly without abandoning ship.

In a vanity-free performance, Collette shows us Fiona's eccentricities without making her a joke - no small feat when a woman insists on mother-son sing-alongs to "Killing Me Softly." The spirit of empathy extends to the other characters as well, from Marcus' hip-hop-loving classmates to Will's casual girlfriend, Suzie (Victoria Smurfit), and the woman he more seriously desires, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), who skewers him as "a blank."

"About a Boy" marks a leap in subtlety and substance for the Weitz brothers, who previously made "American Pie" and "Down to Earth." The movie occasionally strains for crowd-pleasing moments as it pumps up the drama toward the end, but it more than earns our indulgence.

It's funny, moving and true, and it respects the audience's intelligence as much as the characters'. That combination, no matter the movie's label, deserves to be treasured.

3 1/2 stars
"About a Boy"

Directed by Paul Weitz and Chris Weitz; written by Peter Hedges, Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz; based on the novel by Nick Hornby; photographed by Remi Adefarasin; edited by Nick Moore; production designed by Jim Clay; music by Badly Drawn Boy; produced by Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro, Brad Epstein, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:42. MPAA rating: PG-13 (strong language, some thematic elements).
Will - Hugh Grant
Marcus - Nicholas Hoult
Fiona - Toni Collette
Rachel - Rachel Weisz Suzie - Victoria Smurfit

Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.

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