One of the most enduring images of Hugh Grant in Bridget Jones’s Diary is when his character first emerges from an elevator, with a smirk on his face and his eyes darting back and forth on the prowl. After playing the stuttering everyman in many of his previous films, it was refreshing to see Hugh playing a bit of a charming cad.
In About a Boy, Hugh plays Will, a self-centered, womanizing, admitted slacker in his late 30s. Will has no interest in settling down or raising children (hilariously illustrated in an early monologue where he turns down the opportunity to be the godfather to his friends’ infant daughter). As the dating pool dwindles, Will discovers an untapped resource of available, date-able women: single mothers. But when he joins a single parents’ group with the idea of picking up chicks (using a sob story of being the single father of a made-up 2-year-old son named Ned), Will gets more emotionally tangled up than he planned.
Though Will’s dating ruse eventually gets discovered, one of the single-mom kids, a 12-year-old boy named Marcus, sort of adopts reluctant Will as a father figure. You see, Marcus is a bit of a freak. His basket case hippie mom (Toni Collette) dresses him in puffy rainbowed sweaters, and his crooked bangs are obviously a home job. It doesn’t help that he occasionally spaces out in school, singing “Killing Me Softly With His Song” in the middle of class. He’s such an outcast that the nerds don’t even want to hang out with him.
But Will is “cool,” and is perceptive enough to notice that Marcus is at the age where he’ll sink or swim… and he’s sinking fast. They develop an odd sort of friendship, and you begin to notice that the “boy” of the film’s title may very well be the overgrown big-kid Will, who really needs a kick in the pants to grow up and face life as an adult.
About a Boy is directed by Paul and Chris Weitz, best known for the teen sex comedy American Pie. But using as their source a novel by Nick Hornby (who also penned the popular High Fidelity) has brought a new maturity in their filmmaking.
About a Boy is by no means a light comedy. It has an underlying melancholy, and some surprisingly heavy themes. But there is also a warm heart at the center of the film.
Hugh Grant gives one of his strongest and most multi-dimensional roles in years, and he is ably supported by the rest of the cast, including young Nicholas Hoult (Marcus), Rachel Weisz as the (awfully cute) love interest who is suspicious of Will, and Toni Collette (Marcus’ mom), who is so fragile and sad that you can’t help but feel for poor Marcus’ everyday reality at home. These characters are all so real—funny, selfish, weak and strong, and often making poor decisions—that you can’t help but root for them to build their own little family that will bring them the stability and comfort that they need.