Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) is a shallow, candid, aging slacker with a very strict life of relaxation awaiting him every day. Living off the royalties of his father's one hit Christmas tune, Will spends his time tending to all of his own needs, and looking for women to spend the night with. One day, Will realizes that the best type of women to score with are single mothers, and soon he begins attending single-parent support groups to scope out the selection. It is there, and through many strange circumstances, that Will meets Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a 12 year-old boy living with his depressed and lonely hippie mother (Toni Collette). Since Marcus can't find love at home, he strikes up a friendship with Will, and the two bond over their equally empty lives. When a beautiful single mother (an under utilized Rachel Weisz) enters Will's life, he realizes that his relationship with Marcus means more to him than just trying to find the easy way out in life, and he sets out to change his ways.
Just what happened to the Weitz brothers? After some stagnant bottom-feeding with their pastry-humping blockbuster "American Pie," and just barely surviving the Chris Rock comedy "Down To Earth," I had written off the directing team as just another speedbump on the road to finding true talent in young Hollywood. But something has happened to Paul and Chris Weitz, and his name is Wes Anderson. "About A Boy" (IMDb listing) is an accessible, fuzzy, lightweight comedy that is cut directly from the same cloth as Anderson's exalted "Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums." The jump cuts, mannered performances, precise framing, and use of mopey rock songs (provided here by the band Badly Drawn Boy) to propel the story are all Anderson staples, and the Weitz brothers employ these nuances to make their most winning film to date. It's a bitter victory, as they really don't have much directing instinct to call their own, but if they must make movies (and I'm still not convinced they should be), at least they have the sense to mimic one of their incredibly talented contemporaries.
Based on the novel by Nick Hornby ("High Fidelity"), "About A Boy" is essentially a comedy even though it's anchored by some pretty serious dramatic weights. As is the case with most book-to-film translations of this sort, the balance between yucks and frowns is rickety at best. "About A Boy" deals with single motherhood, depression and attempted suicide, and those moments are placed alongside some rather large, garish, audience-pleasing moments of high comedy. By doing this, the Weitz brothers have taken the wind out of the sails of the more complex characters by slightly blowing off their real-life afflictions, and I felt the overall story suffered because of this. Sure, there is plenty to laugh at in "Boy." Good, earned laughs too. But the film never takes hold the way it seems destined to do, lacking in the elegance and plotting that would've been more carefully juggled by another filmmaker.
Though Hugh Grant has had a long, comfortable career as a romantic leading man, "About A Boy" presents a larger venture for the actor, and it begins with... gasp!, cutting his famed fop of hair down to something hipper, and more in character. Grant has such an easygoing, unforced charm about him, and he employs this charisma to great effect in "Boy." But he's also playing a character that is slowly coming to the realization that his privileged hipster life is leading him to atrophy both socially and emotionally. Drama isn't Grant's strength, and he takes this unusual opportunity to show both sides of the coin to blend his expected wit with some deep character pathos. I usually enjoy Grant in his snake form ("Bridget Jones's Diary"), but his work in "Boy" shows growth, restraint and an interest in flexing some acting muscles. A very well done performance.
Grant's greatest ally in "About A Boy" is young Nicholas Hoult as Marcus. For such a young actor, Hoult has terrific range, able to register grief, hope and adoration without raising one of his Damien-like eyebrows. He even manages to go twelve rounds with Grant quip for quip. No small feat. Hoult has a way of taking out the inherent saccharine within the story, which benefits the picture greatly, and with his direct nature and acting style gives a performance that is as much fun to watch as Grant's. He's a terrific find, and I couldn't picture the film without him.
Whether "About A Boy" represents a growth spurt for Paul and Chris Weitz is up to you. All I know is that they've made their first good film, and things can only get better from here.
Filmfodder Grade: B