Two-thirds of a reasonable film

About a Boy
(directed by Chris Weitz & Paul Weitz, screenplay by Peter Hedges, novel by Nick Hornby; 2002)

36-year-old Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) doesn't have to work, creaming a reasonable income from a ghastly Christmas hit penned by his father. He watches oodles of television, owns every gadget invented, and spends his days in 30-minute units and his nights in one-night stands -- until one day he conceives the idea of preying on single mums, and meets Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), the boy of the title.

Nick Hornby's bestseller doesn't seem like a novel ripe for film adaptation: the central character's too unlikeable, the narrative style too critical to the success. Yet, somehow, where the film stuck moderately close to the original, it worked. [Don't get me wrong here. Previous Hornbisations ditch crucial aspects of the book (like the entire plot) and succeed just fine in their own right.] As it happened, we had a coffee break around the two-thirds mark, at which point I was optimistic of this being at least the equal best Hornbisation yet.

And then they throw it all away with a crap ending. I can see why they did it (the original ending, centering around Kurt Cobain's suicide, pinned the novel firmly into the 1990s) -- but, somehow, along with the cultural reference they throw out much of the novel's depth and darkness, whilst adding an unwelcome shot of schmaltz. Presumably to keep the film in the romantic comedy genre, the novel's frequent references to sex and drugs also got mislaid along the way; Will is allowed to smoke (occasionally), but his life-style, revolving around watching Countdown, ended up a bit too squeaky clean for plausibility. Likewise, Marcus' story suffered from the toning down or omission of the bullying and truancy which figured strongly in the novel.

There are some solid performances here. Nicholas Hoult is good as the bright-but-socially-clueless twelve-year-old, and Toni Collette is brilliant as his hopeless mother. This is one of Hugh Grant's best outings yet: he managed to inject enough charm into Will to make him empathetic without abandoning the nastier aspects of the character, and he even intermittently stopped acting Hugh GrantTM in honour of the role. All in all, though, I'd suggest reading the novel, casting Grant (with spiky haircut), and/or renting the excellent High Fidelity instead.

28 & 30 December 2003