Now, I like Hugh Grant just fine — especially in films such as Lair of the White Worm, An Awfully Big Adventure, Sirens, Bitter Moon and Bridget Jones’s Diary — where he either acts against type, or makes a virtue of the limitations of that type. But I think it was only reasonable to approach About a Boy with some degree of apprehension: Here’s yet another film “from the makers of Bridget Jones’s Diary” that overlooks such key “makers of” as the writer and director of that film (the only “makers involved in this and Bridget Jones’s Diary are the producers, who also gave us the execrable 40 Days and 40 Nights)
. Worse, it was directed and co-written by Chris and Paul Weitz, who gave us the dismal Chris Rock comedy Down to Earth and American Pie These are just not the sort of credentials designed to engender confidence in a film, with or without Hugh Grant. But surprise of surprises, the Weitz boys have come up with a winner — a somewhat unorthodox, funny, sweet, sad, sophisticated, thoroughly human movie with a point. That’s a pretty extreme leap for two guys whose previous idea of both unorthodox and sophistication consisted of utilizing a pie in a way Mrs. Smith never had in mind. Of course, it’s worth noting that this film is grounded in something more substantial than their previous works and isn’t shackled by meeting the requirements of a particular comedian’s schtick. Based on a popular British novel by Nick Hornby, About a Boy tells the tale of what happens when ultra-shallow 38-year-old (polite snicker at shaving a bit off Grant’s age is permissible here) playboy Will Freeman runs afoul of 12-year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult). Will is — or thinks he is — the last word in shallowness. He’s content to do nothing but live off the royalties of his one-hit-wonder father’s novelty song (“Santa’s Super Sleigh”), map out his life in 30-minute increments, drift from one insubstantial relationship to another, and worry about keeping his hair “stylishly disheveled.” His “perfect” world starts unraveling when he hits on the idea that single parent groups are a good place to pick up women (never mind that he isn’t a parent) and through circumstances he finds himself playing father figure to Marcus. The concept is far from new, but the details and the freshness of the presentation make the difference. It also affords Grant one of the best roles of his career, since it deftly combines his standard screen character with the more complex, darker aspects found in his characters in An Awfully Big Adventure and Bridget Jones — and it’s a pleasure to be able to report that he’s up to the challenges that come with this. The film definitely trades on more than a few cliches, but not in any seriously detrimental way because they are well-used and inventively presented (Will starts to realize how lonely his life is by watching the “Alone bad, friend good” scene in Bride of Frankenstein on Christmas day). It’s also refreshing that the movie refuses to ever turn into a traditional romantic comedy (the film is at the two-third mark before Grant love interest Rachel Weisz even enters the proceedings). It doesn’t even allow itself the standard romantic happy ending, but a very different happy ending involving what has become Will’s extended family, and it never makes any single person entirely “wrong.” In About a Boy, everyone offers each other something they need in a very astute manner. The Weitz brothers also evidence a heretofore unexpected cinematic stylishness that suggests they may well develop into filmmakers of considerable note. It’s not perfect (a single brief scene where Will fantasizes he sees his father in a supermarket and then the idea disappears from further references suggests that something more elaborate got lost in post-production), but it’s definitely a worthwhile effort.