- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

"I really am this shallow" insists the character played by Hugh Grant in "About a Boy," explaining his unfitness to be the godfather of a friend's new baby.

When the mother later tries to bring him around with the threat, "You'll end up childless and alone," his reply is, "Fingers crossed, yes."

Named Will Freeman in the source material, a deft comic novel by the English author Nick Hornby, this complacent cynic appears to lose his ironic last name in the movie version, adapted and co-directed by the brothers Paul and Chris Weitz.

Apart from that, the transition from page to screen proves exceptionally faithful and results in a consistently entertaining comedy-drama celebrating reluctant character reformation.

The Weitzes have been particularly deft with the book's double narration scheme. Alternate chapters reflect the viewpoints of the two main characters. Will is the grown-up protagonist, a well-to-do wastrel of 38 who lives a tidily hedonistic existence unencumbered by serious obligations. Marcus Brewer is the title character, a 12-year-old schoolboy misfit played by Nicholas Hoult.

Marcus is troubled by his twerpy reputation among schoolmates and the emotional instability of his divorced mother, Fiona (Toni Collette in a beautifully modulated sad-sack performance, blending the ridiculous and touching with uncanny skill), who attempts to end it all on the same day Will and Marcus happen to meet.

This convergence also allows the voices of the narrators to interlock in amusing ways. Inclined to dissemble or temporize when speaking to other characters, Will and Marcus confide uncensored feelings on the soundtrack. When their paths finally cross after the introductory episodes, the juxtaposition opens the door for contrasting private impressions of the same experiences.

Eventually, the repercussions of being thrown together by chance on a day of potential catastrophe for Marcus show the truth of Will's cynical defense against personal involvement: "Let one person in the door, and everyone can get in."

The whole point of the fable is to force a belated maturation on Will by infiltrating Marcus into his solitude. They meet because Will is pursuing a systematic erotic scam, dating single mothers on the theory that it will be easier to brush them off in a short period of time. The ruse has worked once, and he hopes it will work anew with an attractive acquaintance named Suzie (Victoria Smurfit).

Suzie has a toddler named Megan. Will claims to have a 2-year-old named Ned. Will shows up for a picnic date without Ned, of course. Suzie, a friend of Fiona's, surprises the schemer by having Marcus in tow. A happy accident allows Will's talent for lying to bail Marcus out of a ghastly embarrassment.

Later, the group discovers Fiona unconscious after a half-hearted overdose. Her life is spared, but Marcus resolves to cultivate backup support in case she begins to show signs of desperation in the future. Naively, he fixes on Will, who did him a good turn.

Marcus becomes a needy but irresistible pest. He starts hanging out at Will's sleekly furnished flat after school, disrupting the owner's exquisitely idle routines and insinuating himself to an extent that forces Will to clean up his act. That means permitting some of the messiness of human relationships to soil a self-absorbed way of life. The trick for Marcus is to locate some secure middle ground between the emotional messiness of a Fiona and the detachment of a Will.

Smartly cast and performed, the movie achieves a confident balancing act of its own between satire and sentiment, mockery and tenderness. The material itself is a substantial improvement over the Weitz brothers' lucrative debut project, the teen sex farce "American Pie." Their execution reverses the bumbling impression left by a successful but dismal follow-up, the Chris Rock comedy "Down to Earth."

Mr. Grant's performance possesses a steely element that takes you by surprise. The voice tends to be more reassuring than the image. Mr. Grant's Will never seems an essentially friendly bloke. Doing the decent and generous thing goes against his impulses. Mr. Grant suggests that Will has been an accomplished hypocrite for so long that reformation will be anything but a snap.

Nicholas Hoult is distinctively moon-faced and engaging. The romantic subplot, which eventually matches Will with a single mother named Rachel, played by Rachel Weisz, betrays some indecision as in the novel, where Mr. Hornby seemed to discard Suzie prematurely and then invent Rachel as a belated substitute.

Because the time frame is updated from the early 1990s, readers also will find the concluding episodes different. The substitutes are a bit awkward, but Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult put over a whopper while dueting on the self-pity classic "Killing Me Softly With His Song." There are a lot of reasons why this moment of truth shouldn't work, but it does, in part because the film has accumulated an enviable surplus of good will.


***1/2

TITLE: "About a Boy"

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity and sexual candor; episodes about the attempted suicide of a single mother)

CREDITS: Directed by Paul and Chris Weitz.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes


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