- About a Boy (2002) review: Bon vivant Hugh Grant learns that no man has the moral right to live his life as he pleases in Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz’s slick, trendy, and audience-pandering – i.e., proudly phony and reactionary – “family” comedy.
- About a Boy synopsis: A good-looking, well-to-do, and carefree thirty-something Londoner (Hugh Grant) discovers his inner family man after befriending a lonely boy stalker (Nicholas Hoult).
About a Boy (2002) review: Starring Hugh Grant, Chris and Paul Weitz’s ‘family’ comedy unwittingly proves that some men and boys should forever remain ‘islands’
On the surface, screenwriters/directors Chris and Paul Weitz’s About a Boy, the 2002 movie adaptation of a 1998 novel by English author Nick Hornby, has an affecting premise.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
With the above statement – found in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, a collection of meditations and prayers published in 1624 – English poet John Donne (1572–1631) reached beyond the apparent isolation of each individual by affirming the invisible oneness that encompasses all of humankind – and, why not, all living creatures.
Now, to expect such depth from a (largely) British flick that sets out to out-Hollywood Hollywood in slickness and trendiness would be insane. But even as glitzy movies go, About a Boy is an all-around failure – chiefly because its makers seem to think they have An Important Message to convey.
About a Boy plot: Meet bad boy Hugh Grant
“All men are islands,” says Hugh Grant’s rich, self-centered, thirty-something bachelor Will Freeman at the start of About a Boy.
In this age of home entertainment and cybersex, Will likes to float around on his own in the ocean of life. Being independently wealthy thanks to royalties from a rotten but popular jingle his father once wrote, Will doesn’t have a job or any other “serious” commitment. Thus, this Alfie Elkins wannabe spends his time watching TV, having his hair done, and shagging different women all over London.
Most damning of all, he actually enjoys doing all these things.
Any type of intimacy beyond the physical level is unthinkable. That is, until a creepy 12-year-old named Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) shows up at his doorstep, desperately looking for a surrogate father so as to prevent his emotionally unbalanced mother, Fiona (Toni Collette), from doing away with herself.
Now meet creepy boy Nicholas Hoult
At first, Will doesn’t want Marcus around, but the boy is as persistent as he is weird. Eventually, Will puts his little stalker to good use by playing the role of the boy’s single-and-looking dad.
Slowly, the Island Man/Island Boy duo develop a tentative daddy-son connection. Out of sheer kindness, Will even instructs Marcus on how to be hip and cool. Here’s the deal: By losing his individuality – i.e., by looking and acting like just about every other kid his age – the pre-teen will finally be able to fit in at school and elsewhere.
The downside: A jealous Fiona feels that Will is stealing her offspring away from her.
A stage presentation at the boy’s school will show Will, Marcus, and Fiona that human beings need social ties, and that real families are composed of unselfish, monogamous, non-suicidal members.
Bastardized John Donne
And thus is John Donne’s complex, profound idea bastardized into a simplistic, moralistic tale. One can hear the selling pitch:
This is all about Family Values: Rich, good-looking, self-centered bachelor discovers his inner father while being pursued by a creepy fatherless kid.
See, there’s lotsa character development. The selfish guy, who’s such a jerk he actually enjoys being single and having sex with different women, learns to be a monogamous surrogate dad, while the creepy kid learns to be less creepy by wearing cool sneakers and listening to rap music.
There’s more: The kid’s suicidal, granola-addicted mom learns to enjoy life and we may even have her switch to an organic oatmeal brand at the end!
Surely an easy sell for a (reported) $30 million comedy that went on to gross (a reported) $130.5 million worldwide.
‘Family’ tale shallower than Hugh Grant’s character
Despite a couple of funny lines – “I really am this shallow,” Will matter-of-factly says at one point – About a Boy is as proudly mechanical as Will is proudly superficial.
In the derivative screenplay credited to the Weitz brothers and Peter Hedges – this type of Surrogate Dad story dates back all the way to at least Charles Chaplin’s The Kid – cutesy situations are followed by diabetes-inducing cutesier ones until all sense of reality goes kaput.
As to be expected, most of the acting feels as artificial as the plot. Hugh Grant’s Will is the on-screen Hugh Grant reprising the same character he has been playing for the past decade; this time, mercifully, with less of his stuttering shtick.
Dressed up like the Kids in the Hall’s Chicken Lady, the capable Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding) chews on considerably more than just granola grains as the disturbed mother.
Rachel Weisz is wasted as Will’s love interest, while Nicholas Hoult is a tad too creepy as Marcus. A little warmth, perhaps, would have turned his stalker antihero into someone one could actively root for. As it stands, viewers should be forgiven in case they worry less for the boy’s happiness than for Will’s life and limbs.
A couple of exceptions to John Donne’s rule
One could either get mad that About a Boy turns John Donne’s weighty meditation into mushy sentimentality or just go along with the silliness of it all. The problem with the latter option, however, is that About a Boy is not only silly but wrong-headed as well.
John Donne may have been a remarkable thinker, but he should have made a couple of exceptions to his No Man Is an Island rule.
Men who enjoy being single and having multiple sex partners and their frightening little boy stalkers ought indeed to remain islands.
About a Boy (2002) cast & crew
Directors: Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz.
Screenplay: Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz, and Peter Hedges.
From Nick Hornby’s 1998 novel.
Hugh Grant … Will Freeman
Nicholas Hoult … Marcus Brewer
Toni Collette … Fiona Brewer
Rachel Weisz … Rachel
Natalia Tena (as Nat Gastiain Tena) … Ellie
Sharon Small … Christine
Denise Stephenson … Lindsey
Rosalind Knight … Lindsey’s Mum
Victoria Smurfit … Suzie
Cinematography: Remi Adefarasin.
Film Editing: Nick Moore.
Music: Badly Drawn Boy.
Producers: Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro, Brad Epstein, Tim Bevan, and Eric Fellner.
Production Design: Jim Clay.
Costume Design: Joanna Johnston.
Production Companies: Universal Pictures | Le Studio Canal | Working Title Films | Tribeca Productions | KALIMA Productions GmbH & Co. KG.
Distributor: Universal Pictures.
Running Time: 101 min.
Country: United Kingdom | United States.
“About a Boy (2002): Hugh Grant Tragically Discovers Fatherhood” notes
About a Boy Academy Awards
About a Boy received one Oscar nomination:
- Best Adapted Screenplay (Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz, and Peter Hedges).
As can be seen further up, two-time Oscar-winning actor Robert De Niro (The Godfather: Part II, 1974; Raging Bull, 1980) is one of the five listed About a Boy producers.
About a Boy movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.
Nicholas Hoult and Hugh Grant About a Boy movie images: Universal Pictures.
“About a Boy (2002): Hugh Grant Tragically Discovers Fatherhood” last updated in December 2023.