Boys to Men

Nick Hornby creates the ultimate male chick flick

I like About a Boy for pretty much one reason: It made me laugh, repeatedly, with a comforting kind of rhythm. Laughing along to this adapted novel felt like reading fun writing (surprise): You chuckle, then you giggle, then you laugh really hard, and then you ponder something for a bit, and then you feel sad, and the cycle repeats itself. It's sort of dopey, but I personally revere this kind of pattern. (I wonder how much of this pacing owes to the influence of writer/executive producer Nick Hornby and his clout following the success of High Fidelity.)

But there are more reasons to like About a Boy, too. One, there's Hugh Grant, who does his usual thing--except that he's a prick (in Bridgette Jones mode), which makes his usual thing much funnier. Grant plays Will Lightman, who is what my mom would call a serial killer: a guy who endlessly dates and dumps and is incapable of intimacy. He's independently well off because his dead father wrote a Christmas hit ("Santa's Super Sleigh"), which means he spends his life in London aimlessly filling up half-hour units of time. Getting his hair "carefully disheveled": two units. Watching Countdown in his chrome-sleek bachelor pad: one unit. He doesn't do anything, but, he muses to himself, "I wonder if I'd have time for a job." (Grant is good at the voiceover narration.) He also doesn't have room for anyone else--and happily so. His life is a TV comedy, he says, "And it [isn't] an ensemble show." Basically, wealth and technology have enabled him to take shallowness to previously uncharted depths. He is a bourgeois 21st-century Everyman.

The film's other voiceover is provided by Nicholas Hoult, who plays a sad young boy with a severely depressed hippie mom (Toni Colette) who means well, but constantly embarrasses her child. (E.g., she calls out "I love you" across the schoolyard in front of everyone. Aw, nuts.) Colette has the female chemical-imbalance/crying-jag thing down pat, and she makes it funny and poignant. Perfect casting. (A third voiceover, of sorts, is provided by Damon Gough, a.k.a. Badly Drawn Boy, whose acoustic songs in the key of Elliott Smith add a welcome, thoughtful sweetness.)

I don't want to fight about it either, honey, but it says right here on this piece of paper how terribly, terribly handsome I am! Rachel Weisz and Hugh Grant
Universal Studios
I don't want to fight about it either, honey, but it says right here on this piece of paper how terribly, terribly handsome I am! Rachel Weisz and Hugh Grant

These people's lives collide when Will tries to pick up single moms at the local "SPAT" group (Single Parents Alone Together), where he invents a single-dad identity. Fate and whatnot intervene, and suddenly the boy is coming over to his place every day to watch Countdown in silence. Over time, in gradual and plausible ways, the two become close. And this closeness starts to erode everything our Everyman has considered reality for so long.

This is the ultimate male chick flick, even more so than Jerry Maguire. And while Hornby takes the piss out of women a fair amount, he's much harder on men (maybe because he still doesn't know that much about women). But where High Fidelity had a shlumpy, exhausted sense of compromise toward male/female relationships, this movie takes on the issue energetically. Grant's casual doltishness is just right for all that, and his chemistry with Hoult is pure.

These characters are Jane Austen-like archetypes, working through an Austen-style philosophical conflict: the friction between the female principle of interconnection and the male principle of isolation/independence. Groovily, Hornby doesn't make it a straight-up male/female conflict, though, and it's really not. Will's entry point into the life of interconnectedness is a male child, after all.

Now, I won't give away the ending, but I do need to address it, because it sticks out like, I don't know, a wet fuzzy lollipop. In fact, you get the feeling that, in the end, Hornby is really a man's man--and, as such, he really just wants all the dudes in the audience on dates to get laid afterward. About a boy, indeed.

 
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