Colours of a Different Hugh
Now, I like a laugh as much as the next person (work colleagues may disagree, but never mind about that), and there's very little I enjoy more than a night out to watch a decent comedy film. But if
there's one thing that sets my teeth on edge it's a trailer with a warm, avuncular voiceover including dialogue like 'Working Line Pictures... invite you to a comedy... about how learning to love life... can make life love you', over the top of footage of bright young things being cute and loveable. Which happens quite a lot in the wake of successful romantic comedies like Four Weddings and Notting Hill and Bridget Jones. The patron saint of romcom acting is, of course, Mr Hugh Grant, and his new film, the Weitz brothers' About A Boy, seems at first glance to have sprung from the same lineage.
Grant plays Will, a thirty-something with a private income who leads a happily trivial and harmlessly self-centred existence, until he learns the potential benefits on the romance front to be gained from hanging around single mothers and pretending to be, in the words of Frank Mackie, a good and caring person. However, a chance series of events involves him in the lives of troubled twelve-year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) and his unhappy mother Fiona (Toni Collette, not quite reprising her performance from The Sixth Sense, but close enough for it to merit an in-joke). Does this mean Will is going to have to start acting like a responsible adult?
Well, of course it does, but more about that later. The most important thing to be said for About A Boy is that it isn't another Notting Hill, and this extends to Grant's performance. This isn't a soft-centred confection mainly concerned with Grant's lonely heart and wobbly chin. There's real pain and despair and loneliness here, and real warmth and emotion too. Grant is very convincing as the superannuated lad and his transformation as the film goes on is never less than believable. Hoult is equally good as Marcus and shares a sparky chemistry with Grant. The support is pretty much flawless too (Rachel Weisz pops up near the end).
The occasional darkness of the storyline actually helps to ground the film and makes the more overtly comic elements more effective (there is, for example, the best electric-guitar solo gag since Back to the Future). All credit to Peter Hedges' script, based on Nick Hornby's novel, which manages to subtly make its points: that the boy of the title may well be Grant, not Hoult; and that Marcus is initially the adult and Will the juvenile, and the film is the story of how they trade places. There's also a clever contrast between the terribly trendy but fantastically superficial Grant, and the horribly unfashionable but deeply earnest and fundamentally decent Fiona and her friends.
In the end the message of the film is that it's a terrible thing to be shallow and materialistic and it's much better to be warm and fluffy and caring. Now, as a fairly shallow and materialistic person myself, I'd braced myself for this scathing critique of my lifestyle choices and it came as no surprise whatsoever: this is, after all, a mainstream film pitching a mainstream agenda. But what did surprise was how unobjectionable I found this. In its own way this is every bit as winning a film as Four Weddings or Notting Hill, with a good deal more to say for itself. I enjoyed it immensely, and I'm even willing to forgive it for bringing the TV game show Countdown to international attention. Nice one.
Coming soon: Episode II. 'Nuff said.