- About a Boy (2002) movie review: Bon vivant Hugh Grant learns that no man has the moral right to live his own life as he pleases in Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz’s slick, trendy, audience-pandering – i.e., unabashedly phony and reactionary – “family comedy.”
- About a Boy received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
About a Boy movie review: Audience-pandering comedy unwittingly proves that some men & boys should be ‘islands’
On the surface, directors and co-screenwriters Chris and Paul Weitz’s About a Boy movie adaptation of Nick Hornby’s 1998 novel has an affecting premise.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each 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 thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
With the above statement found in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624), English poet John Donne (1572–1631) reached beyond the apparent isolation of each individual person by affirming the invisible oneness that encompasses all of humankind – and, why not, all living creatures.
Now, to expect such depth from a (mostly) 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 leaves much to be desired – chiefly because its makers seem to think they have An Uplifting Message to convey.
If only that were true.
About 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, granola-eating mother, Fiona (Toni Collette), from doing away with herself.
About 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 pretending to be his single-and-looking dad.
Out of sheer kindness, he even tries to teach Marcus to be hip; in other words, to be a conformist and to lose his individuality so he can fit in at school and elsewhere by looking and acting like everybody else.
Slowly, the odd man-boy couple develop a tentative daddy-son relationship that is made more difficult by the jealous Fiona, who 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.
John Donne meditation bastardized
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.
About a Boy is shallower than its lead 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)
Directors: Chris Weitz & Paul Weitz.
Screenplay: Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz, and Peter Hedges.
From Nick Hornby’s 1998 novel.
Cast: Hugh Grant. Toni Collette. Nicholas Hoult. Rachel Weisz. Natalia Tena. Sharon Small. Victoria Smurfit. Rosalind Knight.
“About a Boy Movie (2002) Review” endnotes
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, along with Jane Rosenthal (Wag the Dog), Brad Epstein (The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle), and Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner (both Oscar nominated for Elizabeth, 1998).
Nicholas Hoult and Hugh Grant About a Boy movie images: Universal Pictures.
“About a Boy Movie (2002): Hugh Grant Family Tragedy” last updated in September 2021.