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About a Boy (2002)

by on 2011/12/25

“Every man is an island. I stand by that but, clearly, some men are part of island chains. Below the surface of the ocean, they’re actually connected.”

* * * * *

Somehow, inexplicably — at the very least improbably — the directors of the hugely popular trifle, American Pie, and the unfairly maligned Golden Compass bridged the gap between them with About a Boy.

Based on a novel by Nick Hornby, this film is one I’ve seen several times before. I love it, I own it, I recognize its seasonal spirit. All the same, I’ve put off reviewing it until now. Perhaps it hits too close to home, with a bait-and-switch message of hope (which is fine for aspiration, if slightly at odds with, you know, reality).

The movie begins with the first of two major threads, describing the existence of Will Freeman. A 38 year-old living off the royalties of a Christmas novelty song, he fills his solitary life with everything he enjoys: music, videos, coffee machines, books, and a string of short-term relationships. Outsiders wonder what his “point” is. Will alludes to distracting himself from depression in a moment of candour.

The other thread follows Marcus Brewer, a young teenager who is bullied at school, and unsupported at home. His mother is ostensibly a spiritual, health-obsessed hippie. In practice, she’s profoundly unwell and suicidal. Marcus’ fear for her well-being leads to his own behavioural issues.

A mutual acquaintance inadvertently unites the two, the man who hasn’t grown up, and the child who must do so too soon. Although their relationship is initially difficult, in time they grow closer and help each other grapple with their problems.

This is the kind of plot where very little seems to happen, where set pieces are less important than the character interaction. As such, it’s made or broken by the screenplay and performances. Fortunately, both are exemplary here. While the style is visually fluid, nearly gimmicky with wipes, it isn’t to the detriment of the content

The script is virtually flawless. I can’t remember a single false note, any turn of phrase which struck me as either too “left field” or, conversely, too on-the-nose. Nearly half the notes I scrawled in my viewing were quotes I found impressive, enough to fuel another handful of similar tales.

The performances are just as good. Hugh Grant (Music and Lyrics) as Will plays his usual affable rogue. If it isn’t a stretch, at least he’s got it down pat. Nicholas Hoult (X-Men: First Class) as Marcus has a far less glamourous part, but he acts it without faux cuteness or too-self-aware pathos.

The grand prize, however, goes to Marcus’ mother, Fiona, portrayed by Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding). Her nearly thankless role is handled with an understated control, veering between explosions and collapses without any whiplash contradiction. She was sufficiently effective to make me admire her deluded hypocrite.

What I didn’t believe completely was the premise, the main-line arc. The man and child reversal theme was an interesting one, but I couldn’t fully accept the sudden rejection by Will of his situation thus far. Old habits die hard, and materialism matters, reflecting and supporting the person. To quote from another Hornby feature, High Fidelity, “What really matters is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films, these things matter. Call me shallow but it’s the fucking truth.”

I realize, because it’s pop culture, we’d like to swallow the conceit, the cliche of connection trumping comfort. Nevertheless, there is a reason Will built his environment as he did. It suited him organically, however artificial some may find it. His distance kept him safe from much of life’s pain. The common Hollywood refrain is our pains are worth their reward, but we only ever hear this message when the heroes get their happy ending.

I thought the story had an opportunity to explore another similar angle, a theme it doesn’t directly address: better a has-been than a never-was. One brief line suggests his father was haunted by his early success. I felt Will might have grown in realizing he had work of his own to do, reconciling himself with his legacy.

Still, it’s tough to throw stones at an experience this strong, one prompting introspection. Even after a half-dozen viewings, it has yet to lose its effect. About a Boy appears fast-paced and light in its sense of humour. In time, however, its ideas dig deep, seeding more sober reflection and, thankfully, hope.

* * * * *

Rated PG (Canada) / PG13 (United States)

102 minutes

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