WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: Rich layabout Will Freeman makes up a son in order to chat up single mothers, so can hardly complain when someone else’s, troubled twelve year-old Marcus, invades his cosy world. Marcus’s frequent visits are a pain but he is a useful conversation piece when pretty single mum Rachel catches Will’s eye; however, the boy’s depressive mother Fiona constantly threatens to cast a cloud over everyone, and everything.
Fans of Nick Hornby disappointed by High Fidelity’s move from London to Chicago in film form will be pleased to note that About a Boy stays put, although the action is brought forward by nine years. The latter decision does have its own consequences, but more of that anon.
Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) considers his life to be pretty much perfect, as he has reached the age of thirty-eight and not accumulated any dependants or done an honest day’s work in his life, having a decent income generated from the royalties of his father’s ubiquitous Christmas song Santa’s Super Sleigh. However, Will finds that girlfriends are becoming ever harder to come by – especially as he has nothing to talk about – so after a fling with one single mother proves fantastically non-committal, he seeks out others, going as far as inventing a son called Ned to gain himself favours at Single Parents Alone Together, a self-help group charmingly known as SPAT.
His smooth ways get him close to Suzie (Victoria Smurfit), but when her friend’s son Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) tags along at a picnic and kills a duck with a loaf of bread, Will has no idea what he has let himself in for. That same day Marcus’s mum Fiona (Toni Collette) attempts suicide, and although she is unsuccessful Marcus turns to Will for both help and sanctuary; the problem is, whilst Will can tell the deeply unfashionable Marcus what music he should be listening to and what he should wear, and even buy him trainers (which are promptly stolen by bullies), he is the last person in the world who might be thought of as a father figure.
Nevertheless, Marcus and Will come to a sort of understanding, and when Will is smitten with Rachel (Rachel Weisz) at a New Year party Marcus agrees to pose as his son to help things along, in exchange for advice about getting school tough girl Ellie (Natalia Tena) interested in him. Predictably, the deceit doesn’t hold, and worse, Fiona starts to become depressed again, forcing Marcus to take drastic action. The question is, will Will be enough of a man to involve himself selflessly in the lives of others, no matter how silly it makes him look?
Perhaps the unfairest thing you can do to a novel adaptation is watch the film immediately after reading the book, and this is exactly what I did with About a Boy (though I first saw the film a while ago, before buying the book). For fans of the novel there are immediate issues: where are Marcus’s glasses, for example? Why does he have a hamster? And is Hugh Grant (unconvincingly playing snooker, for no particular reason) really what we think Will looks like, even with his age nudged up a bit? These are minor points, but more relevant is the updating of the story from 1993 to 2002. This removes the Kurt Cobain aspect of the plot and therefore a major reason for Ellie (Cobain’s biggest fan) and Marcus to sympathise with each other. In fact, Marcus and Ellie’s relationship is disappointingly reduced to little more than a one-way crush and passing acquaintance, when the boy’s burgeoning affections for the vulnerable older girl, and her partial reciprocation, should be there to complement Will falling for Rachel.
It’s not all bad, though, and the film judiciously skirts around people like Marcus’s father and girlfriend to concentrate on the central relationship between the young lad and Will. Whatever you think of Grant in the ‘adult’ role, Hoult is excellent as the eccentric but shrewd youngster and the two share a good rapport; importantly, the screenplay keeps most of Hornby’s best dialogue between them intact, bringing out both the comedy and (unsettlingly for each of them) deeper emotions of their odd interactions. The device of Will and Marcus narrating events is effective and the appearance of both at a potentially humiliating school concert – Marcus’s ploy to cheer up his mother – is a cute conclusion (the book’s ending lacks a big-screen punch); and even if the final scene ties up the loose ends rather too neatly, it is preferable to the novel which merely dribbles away. Credit too to Smurfit and especially Collette, who as always inhabits her part, nailing Fiona’s accent and good-and-bad kookiness without a shred of vanity; her hippy lifestyle is entirely credible, even if the clothes she chooses for herself and Marcus are a stylised depiction of Boho. Similarly, Badly Drawn Boy’s soundtrack is a stylised interpretation of the characters’ straggly lives, but while I’m not a fan none of it is unpleasant per se.
In the final analysis, About a Boy doesn’t quite pull it off as a film for the simple reason that the source material cannot be pulled into the shape the Weitz brothers (or more probably their producers) desire. It’s not quite a buddy movie, not quite a domestic drama, and certainly not a Four Weddings-style rom-com, which is what the casting and marketing people desperately want it to be (attempted suicides don’t sit well in the genre, as This Year’s Love amply proved). It’s a shame that About a Boy loses some of the satisfyingly chunky and tangled elements of the novel, but it retains the central dynamic and that, together with some fine performances, makes the film – if not the equal of the book, which you should read if you like the movie – watchable all the same.