[Screen It]

(2002) (Hugh Grant, Nicholas Hoult) (PG-13)

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Comedy: A shallow and self-absorbed playboy finds his attitude and view of the world changing when he eventually and somewhat begrudgingly befriends a 12-year-old loner.
Will Freeman (HUGH GRANT) is a self-absorbed, shallow and single playboy who has few cares in the world thanks to continuous royalties from a Christmas song his father wrote decades earlier. A self-described "island," Will prefers to live a solitary life except when he's on the prowl for some female companionship.

After a married friend sets him up with Angie (ISABEL BROOK), a single mom who ends up breaking up with him rather than the other way around, Will decides to pursue single mothers for the passionate sex, ego massaging and easy breakups. That way, he eliminates the potential of the dreaded commitment.

It's when he's dating Suzie (VICTORIA SMURFIT) that he meets her friend's 12-year-old son, Marcus (NICHOLAS HOULT). A loner with few friends who's always picked on at school especially for unknowingly breaking into impromptu bouts of singing decidedly out of date songs, Marcus accompanies Will and Suzie for a day due to his depressed mom, Fiona (TONI COLLETTE), needing some time for herself.

Marcus takes a liking to Will and his ways, and after his mom attempts to commit suicide, the boy decides the playboy could be the man to make her happy. Although Will eventually starts dating another single mom, Rachel (RACHEL WEISZ), instead, he eventually and somewhat begrudgingly befriends Marcus. As he tries to help the boy cope with and/or overcome his social problems and awkwardness, Marcus unknowingly helps Will grow up and eventually become a more responsible person.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
Although they usually appear in various other roles in their careers, some performers make the greatest impression not by the body of their work, but often by just one particular appearance. With that success and the ensuing real or perceived viewer expectations placed on them, they then try to live up to them and/or shake off that cinematic monkey on their back. Others, on the other hand, toil for a long time and go through various characters before finding the one that best suits them.

Hugh Grant, the popular British actor and ex-beau of Elizabeth Hurley, fits both descriptions. Back in 1994, after appearing in 15 or so previous films, he made a terrific worldwide splash in Mike Newell's "Four Weddings and a Funeral" playing the amiable and charming bachelor. His performance was fresh and winning, and turned Grant into a star.

Unfortunately, his style and mannerisms then repeated themselves in films such as "Nine Months" (either purposefully or because that's the way he is/was in real life), eventually leading him to try something completely different. That resulted in the less than well-received "Extreme Measures" in 1996.

Now, after all of those years and films, both good and bad, Grant has found a role that should mark his second coming in Hollywood, and that's of the lead character, Will Freeman in "About a Boy." Although the film may be overwhelmed during its theatrical run by opening against the latest "Star Wars" picture (which is either a brilliant or suicidal counter programming maneuver), this adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel is a winning, highly entertaining and quite enjoyable effort.

The tale of a self-centered playboy who learns about himself and life by having a troubled boy drop into his world might sound and could have come off as a maudlin TV movie of the week. It may also sound quite a bit like the 1999 flick, "Big Daddy," where Adam Sandler's somewhat similar character has a comparable boy-based transformation (which also somewhat held true for the title characters in "Three Men and a Baby").

Yet, this one's so much more and a great deal more enjoyable to behold, partially because it doesn't involve the totally dependent, young kid angle. Along the lines of Hornby's other work, "High Fidelity," the story focuses on a shallow chap who has something of a second coming of age event in his life that causes him to develop into a more rounded person.

While the script - adapted and penned by co-writers/directors Chris and Paul Weitz along with Peter Hedges ("A Map of the World," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape) - might not be completely original in basic concept, it's in the fine details and nuances that the effort comes to life and shines forth. All of which is particularly surprising considering that the directors previously helmed the sophomoric "American Pie" film and the abysmal "Down to Earth."

With this effort, the brotherly directing team has decidedly ripened, matured and/or possibly just finally revealed their previously obscured talent for making a terrific little film. Of course, it doesn't hurt that they're working from Hornby's source material and much of the literary feel has transferred over to the film, mostly in the form of witty dialogue and voice over narration.

I'm usually not a fan of that latter cinematic device - as it's more often than not a lazy or desperate way to impart important character and story information - but it actually works incredibly well here. As told by the man and boy, the narration becomes something of a character itself. It also creates and delivers some of the film's more hilarious and amusing moments, particularly when spoken by Grant.

The performances are right in line with that, especially from Grant who follows up his bad boy character in "Bridget Jones's Diary" with this terrific role. Although some of the barbed and caustically witty remarks begin to wane in the film's second half as his character starts to grow and become more compassionate, Grant is perfect in the part. Some may argue that it's just the sort of role he could play in his sleep - and in some ways that's true - but he delivers such brilliant touches to his character that he manages to make an initially shallow and self-absorbed character both engaging and fun to witness.

As his young charge, Nicholas Hoult ("Intimate Relations") is also quite good as he portrays the isolated loner who risks even greater social stigma in his attempt to make his mother happy. Toni Collette ("Changing Lanes," "The Sixth Sense") credibly plays that depressed and briefly suicidal character and clearly makes her seem like a real person. The likes of Rachel Weisz ("The Mummy Returns," "Enemy a the Gates") and Victoria Smurfit ("The Wedding Tackle," "The Leading Man") are also good in their respective supporting roles as women with whom the protagonist gets involved.

It's the relationship between Will and Marcus, through, that both drives and makes the film so endearing and entertaining. Their simultaneous but independent character and story introductions work quite well and thankfully don't feel episodic, while their eventual friendship feels natural rather than forced or contrived.

Although the comedy level dips a bit in relation to that growing bond between the two "boys" as well as Will's maturation, and is replaced by a certain warmhearted nature that fortunately never feels mawkish, the film easily maintains its ability to engage the viewer. Featuring a fun soundtrack, terrific writing, just the right directorial touch and some standout performances, this is a winning and highly entertaining comedy. "About a Boy" thus rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed April 12, 2002 / Posted May 17, 2002

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