About a Boy is actually about two boys, perhaps even three. There's 12-year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), the kid whom the whole school likes to pick on because his clothes and his hair aren't up to snuff. There's 38-year-old Will (Hugh Grant), who according to the movie's press kit is 'handsome, rich, shallow, self-absorbed and irresistible,' though not necessarily in that order. And there's Will's 12-year-old inner child, who haunts this pleasantly unassuming comedy-drama like a ghost.
Way back when, Will's father wrote a Christmas song that's up there with 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,' leaving Will with a small fortune and a lot of time on his hands. A sensible fellow, he's applied the former to the latter, surrounding himself with TVs, CDs and DVDs, not to mention an Audi Coupe. Like the Grinch who inherited Christmas, Will doesn't appear to need anyone else.
But he does, of course. And what's so nice about this British import, which is directed by the pair of Yanks who brought us American Pie, is that neither he nor we have to slog through the standard Hollywood bullshit to turn Will's life around.
Based on a novel by Nick Hornby, About a Boy has been compared to Bridget Jones's Diary, the difference being that Bridget wanted a relationship and Will thinks he doesn't. But I'd compare the movie to Jerry Maguire, where the way to Tom Cruise's heart was through RenÃe Zellweger's son. Despite Grant's star status, About a Boy belongs equally to Will and Marcus, who meet after Will starts trolling single-parent support groups for needy women. That Will doesn't have a child of his own barely slows him down. Sprinkling crushed potato chips on a recently purchased car seat, he invents one.
Grant has not only shorn his flowing locks for About a Boy, he's pitched that whole Jimmy Stewart stammering routine, and it's almost like encountering a brand-new actor, one we might take seriously. It's not like Grant used to lead with his hair, but it did beat him into a room by a second or two. Here, he seems more complex, equal parts adorable and deplorable. 'No, no, no, I really am this shallow,' Will says after a friend suggests he has hidden depths. And you thank God that it's Hugh Grant delivering that line and not, say, Ben Stiller; there isn't an ounce of ingratiation in Grant's performance. Even after Marcus' mother, a clinically depressed hippie-chick played by Toni Collette, attempts suicide, Will maintains his joie de vivre. 'It was horrible, just horrible,' he narrates, 'but driving fast behind the ambulance was fantastic.'
There may be too much narration, Will and Marcus taking turns at the mike; it's as if the filmmakers couldn't stand to leave the source novel behind. Chris and Paul Weitz, who secured a spot on Hollywood's hit list by having a high school boy attempt to impregnate an apple pie, wouldn't have been my first choice to direct About a Boy, even though American Pie showed some real sensitivity to women. But they've done a great job of letting Hornby's novel tell itself through these actors.
The Weitz brothers don't press too hard, and they whittle the big moments down to a reasonable size. When Will and Marcus serenade a school auditorium with the murderously emotive strains of 'Killing Me Softly with His Song,' we expect the assembled multitude to abandon their sneers and jeers and start singing along; that's the Hollywood way. Unfortunately for our boys, this doesn't happen.