Film Reviews: Wednesday, May 16, 2002
The Bachelor

There’s much to like in this comedy About a Boy, but something’s missing.

By Kristian Lin

Promotional material for About a Boy doesn’t mention that the movie’s directed and co-written by Paul and Chris Weitz, who are best known for American Pie. It’s probably just as well; mentioning that watershed teen comedy would give people entirely the wrong idea about this friendly but slightly staid adaptation of Nick Hornby’s comic novel.

The too-obviously named Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) is a proudly single 38-year-old Londoner who has never held a job, living comfortably off the royalties generated by a Christmas song his father wrote 35 years ago. Marcus Brewer (Nicholas Hoult) is a 12-year-old boy who’s a social outcast at his new school. He’s being raised by a single mother (Toni Collette) who’s so severely depressed that she literally cries over spilled milk. They meet through a support group for single parents, which Will joins even though he doesn’t have a kid. He’s there to meet women, hoping to score with some lonely single moms who will give him a few months of hot sex and then painlessly break up with him, blaming themselves and their situations for leading them to a dead-end relationship, which is all Will’s looking for. Marcus quickly figures out that Will is childless and contemplates blackmailing him into dating his mom to pull her out of her depression. He eventually finds that he likes Will better as a male role model with good taste in clothes and music.

As you might have gleaned from the above plot synopsis, these characters have some complex motivations; this testifies to Hornby’s insight into immature bachelors and precocious kids. The film version loses little of this. Working with much more genteel comic material, the Weitzes prove themselves fairly skilled filmmakers. They make some inventive use of framing to enter into Will’s emotional state. They perfectly time the camera movements and Hugh Grant’s voiceover to film a scene where Will’s line of bull works on a woman he’s dating. The Weitzes also get the hip London atmosphere right, something many English filmmakers don’t do well. Nicholas Hoult doesn’t have the talent of some of his cuter contemporaries, but he’s got the right look and attitude for the role of an ornery, eccentric boy. Casting Grant as a sad, shiftless loser does wonders for his usual shtick — he looks gratifyingly uncomfortable and self-weary inside his charisma.

With so much going for the movie, why doesn’t it play better? For starters, the book ends too neatly — it’s as though Hornby waves a magic wand, and suddenly his characters turn out all right — and the movie never escapes that. The story flows briskly enough, but there’s no suspense as to how it’ll play out. The movie never attains the rude energy of American Pie or the Weitzes’ most sustained writing achievement, the 1998 animated film Antz. Like too many other well-mannered Hollywoodized British comedies, About a Boy is polished to a dull finish.

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