Early in About a Boy, 38-year-old Will, a confirmed (and happy about it) bachelor, visits his friends, who have a new baby. They expect him to Ooh and Aah, but he holds the little thing with a look of horror and disgust on his face. They take the baby from him and he surreptitiously wipes his hand on the sofa pillow. The couple, basking in the smug glow of parenthood and monogamy, asks Will if he would like to be “Imogenes godfather”, believing that he will swoon at the honor. His response: “You must be joking.” They look crestfallen and Will says, “I couldn’t possibly think of a worse godfather for Imogene. You know me. I’ll drop her at her christening. I’ll forget her birthdays until her 18th, when I’ll take her out and get her drunk and possibly, let’s face it, you know, try and shag her. I mean, seriously, it’s a very, very bad choice.” This depraved monologue goes over like a lead balloon, and the wife says to him, baffled, “No, I know. I just thought you had hidden depths, Will.” And Will, played by Hugh Grant, in his best performance, says – in a way that only Hugh Grant could say it: “No, no. You’ve always had that wrong. I really am this shallow.”
About a Boy, based on Nick Hornby’s second novel, is a perfect movie. Not a great movie, but a perfect movie. Many great films aren’t perfect (as Pauline Kael always pointed out), and the “perfect” movies, the ones that work time and time again, that never ever miss their mark, are truly rare. Opinions may differ on what makes a movie perfect but my definition is as follows:
1. The tone is consistent and yet not boring or cliche
2. Every scene propels the story forward
3. Every scene has a perfect beginning/middle/end – no meandering, nothing extraneous
4. The characters are interesting and watchable, and whatever the journey is, the viewer can invest
5. The story has some element of surprise – which does not lessen the enjoyment of the viewer seeing it a second time
6. A soundtrack that ADDS, rather than DOMINATES. No songs that tell you how to feel. But songs that help create a mood.
7. The filmmakers and the screenwriter have a strong point of view that is clear to the viewer
8. No loose ends. Tie them up, without any clunky beyond-belief plot twists, so that the viewer is left with a satisfied feeling at the end
Now many great movies do not have these elements. They don’t need to. They are up to something different. John Cassavetes’ Opening Night, one of my favorite movies of all time, doesn’t meet any of my criteria for a “perfect” movie, and it doesn’t need to. The movie would be poorer for it if it tried to. Reds is one of the greatest pictures ever made in my mind but it also doesn’t play the game in the way I described above. God help us if those scenes in Reds didn’t meander a bit, if they didn’t start, stop, leave you wanting more, if they didn’t come AT you, expecting you to do some catching up. That is why the movie is so gripping.
But for what it is, About a Boy doesn’t hit one off-key note. This is not on the same level as a “guilty pleasure”, where a stupid movie for whatever reason works some magic. I have those in my mind as well (phone call for Center Stage), but there is nothing to “forgive” here, nothing to overlook. It is complete, a perfect representation of a world, and an emotional journey of a bunch of characters. Notting Hill comes close to perfection, except the soundtrack is bossy and way too obvious, the songs coming in to tell you what you already know, insisting you feel a certain way. Therefore, it is not perfect in my mind. About a Boy is a gem, and I have seen it multiple times and it continues to strike me as perfect. The same moments make me guffaw every time, the same moments pull me out of the humor of it and show me the dark underbelly of what is really going on. The movie’s directors (Paul and Chris Weitz, of American Pie fame) have total confidence in what they are doing. They know exactly what to choose, why to choose it, where to put the camera, and how to lead us by the hand through the story. They also cast the film perfectly. The fact that the Weitz brothers came to fame with American Pie (a movie I didn’t care for) makes the feeling of About a Boy even more extraordinary. If you go into it expecting the raunch-factor or the juvenile-humor factor, you will be totally surprised to find none of that here, although the movie is very very funny. It’s also surprising because this movie feels very British. The British-isms stand without explanation for us Americans (“Are you taking the piss?” barks a frightening punk-rock girl named Ellie to Marcus, who is madly in love with her), and it lives in its own locale comfortably.
The source material is edited in a way that serves the film. There is a dual narration. One is by Will, the aforementioned bachelor, who declares that John Donne was full of crap, because man IS an island, and he, Will, is “bloody Ibiza.” Will lives off the royalties of his father, who was a one-hit wonder, having penned the Christmas classic, “Santa’s Super-Sleigh”. Will lives in a slick pad, with lots of toys about. He’s very into his gadgets. The espresso maker. He manages his time, moving from high-end hair salons, to the billiard hall (“exercise”, he tells us), he takes long baths drinking beer, and surfs the Internet. He is, as he tells us, completely content. He is not interested in entanglements. He is obviously a bastard in relationships, and there’s a very funny compilation of break-up moments, with different women talking right to the camera at him, in various states of disarray. “You selfish bastard …” “I cannot believe I have wasted all this time with you …” He’s used to being the bad guy in relationships, he just can’t help it. He wants easy sex, he wants a good-looking babe, but he doesn’t want any complications. He’s not 22 anymore, so women who are his contemporaries are, for the most part, not interested in casual no-strings situations. It’s called growing up. But Will feels no compunction to grow up, and the movie is right to not judge him for this, although it does show his immaturity in very humorous ways. But Will has some good rejoinders to those who call him “selfish”. His friend with the baby says, “You only care about yourself,” and he replies, “Well … yes. There’s only me, though. I only have myself to look after.” If you have no desire for what everyone else has, if you don’t want the same things, then why should you feel pressure? To settle down, domesticate yourself? If that’s truly not what you want? Will doesn’t even have a career he has to bother about. He does nothing. All day long. There’s a very funny moment where he sits in the chair at the hair salon, getting his head massaged, and he states in his voiceover, “To be honest, I don’t actually think I would have time to have a job.”
The other narrator is a painfully geeky kid named Marcus (played beautifully by Nicholas Hoult), who lives with his clinically depressed mother Fiona (an amazing performance by Toni Collette). There is no father in the picture, and when you finally do meet the father, at a Christmas lunch at the house, you think that it’s probably a good thing that this guy isn’t in Marcus’ life in any meaningful way. Regardless, life is not easy in the household. Marcus is picked on at school. His hair is obviously cut by his mother, in a terrible bowl cut, and his clothes are atrocious. Big sweaters with knitted rainbows on the back, and things like that. Fiona is a “music therapist” who works with sick people, and as the film goes on you wonder if such an unbalanced person should be spending so much time trying to help others, while she obviously needs so much help herself. Marcus has no friends. He is a serious dreamy little guy, who, unfortunately, has a bad habit of breaking out into song, without knowing that he’s doing it. He sits in class one day, staring out the window, lost in thought, lost to the world, and, unconsciously, he starts to sing … in the middle of the lecture. “Rainy days and Mondays always get me down …” Naturally, this does not endear him to his classmates, who torture him on a daily basis, throwing things at him, chasing him down the stairs, and basically making his life a living hell. Marcus lies on his bed, fully clothed, at home, staring up at the ceiling. In the mornings, he sits at the table, watching as his mother pours his cereal, tears streaming down her face. He doesn’t know what to do. He loves his mother. He can’t tell her how bad things are for him, he has to protect her from all of that. She loves him to death but she is clueless as to what is going on. For instance, Fiona gives him a tamborine for Christmas and tells him maybe he wants to “get a pop group together, make some friends”. Does she have any idea what adolescence is like? Her sense of reality stopped in 1971.
About a Boy, though, does not make her into a caricature (this is what I mean when I say that their casting is superb). Her character could have become a vicious parody of a certain type of self-righteous vegan Birkenstock-wearing woman, who only eats a cereal that is called “Ancient Grains”, who doesn’t allow her son to eat McDonalds, who is crunchy-granola to the extreme. It could have been hostile. It is not. The film does poke fun at her (Will’s voiceover when he goes out to lunch with her and Marcus, “The woman was clearly insane and was wearing some sort of Yeti costume”, a line that makes me howl every time), but it does so without sacrificing her humanity
In fact, I think it’s one of the most accurate depictions of clinical depression that I’ve ever seen. There is one shot of her, in the morning, weeping in the kitchen, for no reason, and she reaches up to get a bowl off the shelf, but she struggles, it doesn’t come out into her hand easily. This undoes her. She lets go of the bowl, and stands at the counter, sobbing, completely defeated. This is what it is like. To more hearty and well-balanced types, it may seem ridiculous, and she just needs to pull herself up by her organic-wool boot-straps … but clinical depression doesn’t work that way. Toni Collette gets that, and the Weitz brothers were so so smart in casting her. Everyone is human here. No one is a caricature. No one is used as the butt of a joke. And Toni Collette turns in what is a very VERY funny performance, at the same time that it is heartwrenching. Not an easy task. A very difficult balancing act. The movie has perfect pitch. If that character weren’t handled so sensitively and so well, the film would not have worked. Yes, the two leads – Grant and Hoult – are crucial. But she is the key, the catalyst to all of the action: why Marcus is the way he is, why Marcus reaches out to Will, why Will recoils – she is the connecting thread, and she HAS to be clear and you must empathize with her (even though you want to shake her at times and shove a Chicken McNugget down her throat). Collette nails it.
Through a set of circumstances, Will comes to a realization: “single mums” are the women he needs to be targeting. Especially if they’ve been “messed around a bit” by the father/husband who abandoned them. Women like that are so grateful! They are also begging for it, the sex is passionate, and then, inevitably, they decide to break it off with him. “I’m not ready to jump into anything serious …” “I’ve just got out of my marriage – I really need to take it slow …” “I feel so bad, because you’re such a good guy…” With a “single mum” Will always gets to be the good guy! What a refreshing change! It’s not a perfect situation, however. There is a very funny sequence showing his dating of one “single mum”, and unfortunately, she can’t ever sleep over at his pad, because of the kid, so he is forced to sleep over at her place, but she doesn’t “have cable” so he has to watch whatever’s on with her. He sits on the couch, she’s curled up next to him, and from the television you hear a voice weeping, in perfect Lifetime Television pathos: “We’re told he only has one month to live! How … how … how can I bear it??” Hugh Grant’s horrified face, as he stares at this dreck, is one of the comedic high points of the movie.
In lieu of his new discovery, of the gold mine that is the single mum demographic, he basically crashes a support group, held in the basement of a church, where single parents get together to share and support. The group is called SPAT, as in Single Parents Alone Together. Serious solemn women sit in a circle, and one by one, they share their horror stories. The Weitz brothers move the camera slowly around, as one, after the other, say something like, “Mine left me because he said I got too fat.” “Mine took off with his secretary. Such a cliche.” One woman has on a T shirt that has “LORENA BOBBITT FOR PRESIDENT” emblazoned across the front. Will, naturally, is the only man there. He confesses to us in voiceover that after ten minutes of listening to these stories he was “ready to cut his own penis off”. Will is there under false pretenses. He makes up a son, a 2 year old named “Ned”. The women of SPAT are shocked that the WOMAN left HIM. They have so many questions. “Does she ever see Ned?” “How does he handle not seeing his Mum?” Will hadn’t quite thought through his cover story, so he bumbles along as best as he can, trying to be grief-struck, and yet also a proud dad. The women buy it, hook line and sinker. The Weitz brothers are so funny and specific in their observations. They show the members of SPAT doing trust falls together and they end each meeting standing in a circle, holding hands, and chanting, “SINGLE PARENTS ALONE TOGETHER, SINGLE PARENTS ALONE TOGETHER, ALL FOR ONE AND ONE FOR ALL.” This is very subtle sophisticated humor. It hits me right in the sweet spot. Will informs us that by the end of the meeting he had lined up his first date with a cute blonde single mum named Suzie.
And this is how geeky bowl-cut Marcus comes into his life. Fiona attends SPAT meetings as well, and on Will’s first date with Suzie (they are going to a SPAT picnic in the park), Suzie brings Marcus along because “his mum is a bit off-color, she needs a bit of rest today”. Will, who, after all, is supposed to be a Dad, and supposed to be completely understanding of how kids mess up your plans, can barely contain his annoyance that this solemn weird little nerd is tagging along on his date.
The cliche here, of a kid somehow softening a curmudgeonly character, is so overdone as to be tiresome. But in About a Boy, the Weitz brothers down-play the sentimentality (there is no sentimentality, basically), and play UP the weirdness and quirks of their characters. You never feel like you are watching a worn-out storyline, but something fresh and original. Will does not become cuddly, and Marcus does not become cool. They maintain their essential characteristics, but the journey of the film is twofold: Will has declared repeatedly that man IS an island, and that is how he wants it. He sets his boundaries and keeps them, even at the expense of other people’s feelings. Marcus, struggling to handle his mother’s suicidal depression, realizes that he can’t do it alone, he needs “backup”. “Two aren’t enough. You need at least three,” he tells us. Marcus searches for “backup”, and hones in on Will, the most unlikely father figure you are ever going to meet. In the face of the Marcus onslaught, Will tries to maintain his “island” stance, but slowly, it becomes difficult, as he gets involved, against his will.
These are prickly people, all of them. Their humor is blunt and sharp, they maintain their defenses, and break down the barriers only with a huge fight. All of this works in the film’s favor. It is not misty-eyed about any of its themes. It knows that life is tough, man. Connecting with people is tough, especially if you are damaged, as everyone here is, with the notable exception of Rachel, played by Rachel Weisz, in a lovely understated performance. Rachel is another “single mum” Will is interested in … yet unlike any woman before or since, she gets under his skin … in a way that is unexpected for him, and disorienting. I like that the film doesn’t make her perfect. Her house is a mess, for example, in direct contrast to Will’s antiseptic immaculate pad, and when Will first comes over, she is hurriedly cleaning up some wine glasses from her coffee table, and putting them on a crowded countertop. She can’t put them in the sink because there are some dirty pots already in the sink. This is subtle stuff, not dwelled on, but it says a lot about her. It’s nice, it adds depth. Her son is terrifying and damaged, and she deals with it the best she can. She’s an artist. Weisz isn’t given much to do, but she uses her time in that role very wisely. You can see that she is a woman of substance, and for the first time in Will’s life, he wishes he was more interesting, that he actually had something to bring to the table. “Every time she said something interesting, which was all the time, I wanted to kiss her,” Will confesses to us. Will interested in something? Wanting to LISTEN to a woman? What is happening?
With a fantastic pointed script by Peter Hedges (and the Weitzes), with multiple laugh-out-loud funny moments (Fiona sobs to Will, “Will, am I bad mother?” and Will replies, “No. You’re not a bad mother. You’re just a barking lunatic.”) the film keeps all of these characters in suspension, their lives intersected by chance, and how it will play out you just don’t know, but you know that they’re all transforming. It’s not easy, everyone goes down kicking and screaming. This is a crucial time for all of them. They don’t always behave well. They don’t accept love easily, or with grace. They think they’re beyond it. They think that those things like community – “backup” – is not for them, either because they have chosen to be single and unattached (Will), or because the damage done is so beyond the pale that they have been shoved outside the human family (Marcus, Fiona).
Respecting its characters to the utmost, letting them be whoever the hell they already are, respecting both the traumas of youth (and its humorous side) and the emptiness of the approach of middle age when things aren’t “set” yet, understanding completely what it means to feel “outside”, and with the best work Hugh Grant has ever done (watch the anger there in the blowup scene with Marcus, the anger that’s hiding the pain at his own inadequacies, the pain when he admits that he “is a blank” – this is damn good acting from him) About a Boy is one of my favorite films of the last decade.