'About a Boy' movie review: Some men should remain islands
On the surface, Chris and Paul Weitz's 2002 movie About a Boy has a profound, 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, seventeenth-century English poet John Donne 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 (mostly) British film that sets out to out-Hollywood Hollywood in trendiness and slickness would be absurd. But even as glitzy films go, the Hugh Grant star vehicle About a Boy leaves much to be desired – mostly because its makers seem to think they have an Important Message to convey. If only that were true.
About Bad Boy Hugh Grant
“All men are islands,” says the rich, self-centered thirty-something bachelor Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) 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 as a result of 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 wannabe spends his time watching TV, having his hair done, and shagging different women all over London.
Worse yet, he actually enjoys doing all these things. Any type of intimacy beyond the physical level is unthinkable. That is, until a creepy twelve-year-old boy named Marcus Brewer (Nicholas Hoult) shows up at his doorstep. Poor Marcus is desperately looking for a surrogate father so as to prevent his emotionally unbalanced, granola-eating mother Fiona (Toni Collette) from killing herself.
About Stalking Boy Nicholas Hoult
At first, Will doesn't want Marcus around, but the boy is as persistent as he is weird. Eventually, Will puts the Boy Stalker to good use by pretending to be his single-and-looking father.
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 look and act like everybody else. Slowly, the two develop a tentative relationship that is made more difficult by the jealous Fiona, who feels that Will is stealing her son 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 caring, unselfish, monogamous, non-suicidal members.
John Donne poem bastardized
Thus is John Donne's profound and complex idea bastardized into a moralistic, simple-minded storyline adapted from a novel by Nick Hornby. I can hear the selling pitch:
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 real nice, monogamous, surrogate dad, while the creepy kid learns to be less creepy by wearing cool sneakers and listening to rap music.
Also, the kid's granola-addicted, suicidal mom learns to enjoy life. And we may even have her switch to a high-quality brand of oatmeal at the end!
An easy sell, if ever there was one.
'About a Boy' screenplay 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 Peter Hedges and to the American Pie duo Chris and Paul Weitz (who also directed), 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. The capable Toni Collette (Muriel's Wedding), dressed up like the Kids in the Hall's Chicken Lady, chews on considerably more than just granola grains as the disturbed mother. 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.
Rachel Weisz is wasted as Will's love interest, while Nicholas Hoult is a tad too creepy as the young Marcus. A little warmth would have turned his stalker antihero into someone I could actively root for. As it stands, I worried less for the boy's happiness than for the safety of 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 profound thoughts 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 was a wise man, 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 to remain islands.
About a Boy (2002).
Dir.: Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz.
Scr.: Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz, and Peter Hedges. From Nick Hornby's novel.
Cast: Hugh Grant. Toni Collette. Nicholas Hoult. Rachel Weisz. Natalia Tena. Sharon Small. Victoria Smurfit.
About a Boy movie cast information via the IMDb.
Toni Collette, Nicholas Hoult, and Hugh Grant About a Boy images: Universal Pictures.