About a Boy *** 1/2 stars (out of four)
Starring Hugh Grant, Nicholas Hoult, Rachel Weisz, left, and Toni Collette. Directed by Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz.
Opening Friday in area theaters
There was never any question that Hugh Grant would be perfect to star in "About a Boy" as a selfish, lazy London bachelor with a phobia about commitment.
Of course, he had to give up the droopy bangs and engaging stammer, but Grant was born to play Will Freeman, a handsome fellow who lives off the royalties from his father's one-hit single Christmas jingle and does absolutely nothing all day but watch TV game shows, play with his cappuccino machine and drift about looking for lovely ladies to bed.
The role falls somewhere between the shy bookseller Grant played in "Notting Hill" and the cad of "Bridget Jones's Diary," and Grant fits it to a T.
Yes, we believe, this truly IS a man who would invent a phantom son, and even buy a car seat, just so he can pick up lonely single moms at single parent support group meetings.
The problem, in adapting Nick Hornby's amusing novel for the screen, was finding a co-star with the right chemistry.
And that would not be a lady, but a boy. Happily, the perfect boy was found.
Newcomer Nicholas Hoult, with his expressive face and chubby, ungainly body, is a marvel as 12-year-old Marcus, the unhappy boy who latches onto Will and helps him grow up. (It's a delicious irony that the "Boy" of the title refers to Will and not to Marcus.)
Theirs is a perfect match: Will knows better than Marcus' suicidal vegetarian-hippy mother Fiona (played by Toni Collette) what Marcus needs to survive the bullies who torment him in school. And Marcus shows Will that while entanglements with other humans can be messy, they can also be, well, sort of nice.
And, so while "About a Boy" is a romantic comedy of sorts, featuring Will and various lady friends including the lovely Rachel Weisz, the central story is Will's relationship with Marcus and Hornby's bittersweet take on the clueless male: Will doesn't know what he wants, and what he thinks he wants won't make him happy, so it's a revelation when life - and joy - takes him by surprise. After declaring at the start of the film, "I really am this shallow," Will is quite stunned to find he does have hidden depths. And while Will is discovering the joy of being half of a couple, Marcus is still two steps ahead of him. Marcus already knows that two is not enough, he needs more people he can depend on if he's going to survive his life.
"High Fidelity," the film adaptation of Hornby's other hilarious novel about the immature male, featured multiple scenes of star John Cusack talking to the screen. And in adapting "About a Boy," American brothers Chris and Paul Weitz (who directed the first "American Pie" movie) wisely have kept some of the interior monologues that make the book so engaging - in the movie we can often hear what Marcus and Will are thinking.
It must be said that the Weitzes, who wrote the screenplay with Peter Hedges (screenwriter for "A Map of the World" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?"), didn't have to do much tinkering to come up with a good movie from Hornby's book. It was theirs to ruin. Happily they didn't, although Hornby-philes may be distressed that the Kurt Cobain references in the book have been completely removed (even the title is a take-off on Cobain's song, "About a Girl") and the movie's ending, a talent show at school, is completely new.
And, unlike "High Fidelity," which was relocated to Chicago, "About a Boy" is set in London so there are British accents and references to wallies and such. The soundtrack was composed and performed by Badly Drawn Boy.
While the movie has some awkwardly executed scenes and slow spots and the development of Marcus' relationship with Ellie, an older schoolmate, is cut short, this is a comedy with a heart. It's about connection and family, and how a family can be constructed of total strangers. It's funny, it's smart, it's poignant - and it's set on Planet Earth. (Unlike that other big movie opening this week.)
Go see "About a Boy." But read the book first.