Dirs: Paul and Chris Weitz. UK/US. 2002. 100mins
Will Britain's latest semi-confessional romantic comedy be the new Bridget Jones's Diary' It certainly has the right ingredients: a powerful combination of best-selling novelist Nick Hornby, Hugh Grant and the confident, commercial touch which co-producers Working Title have brought to this genre in their three previous outings with Grant (Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones). Released in the UK on April 26, About A Boy has not - yet - been trumpeted by the massive media blitz which announced Ms Jones's arrival. But prospects look bright, thanks to all of the above elements, plus the film's overall polish and the apparently bottomless public appetite for this material: a BBC adaptation of Tony Parsons' Man And Boy, also about single fatherhood in North London, is broadcast later this month. It will be revealing to see how the film opens internationally without, as with the other films, a major American star or even a significant female character (it's released in the US on 17 May as counter-programming to Star Wars: Episode II - Attack Of the Clones). Still, Grant, seeming to get better the further he's allowed to extend his range, delivers a terrific central performance, as acerbic but more complex than his sexy snake in Bridget Jones.
Grant plays Will Freeman, the archetypal Hornby anti-hero: a commitment-phobic North Londoner in his thirties who prides himself on his terminal hipness. Living on the proceeds of a novelty Christmas hit written by his father years ago, he idles the days away in his gadget-filled apartment watching afternoon quiz shows, playing CDs and reading style magazines. "I like to think I'm an island," he muses. "I like to think I'm pretty cool. I like to think I'm... Ibiza". There's a huge chasm between his suave self-image and the sad reality.
Reasoning that single mothers are the perfect no-strings date, since they're panting for sex but prevented by their child from getting too involved with a man, Will joins a single parents' support group, inventing a young son for the purpose. Here, a chain of events leads him to Marcus (Nicholas Hoult). Marcus is 12, going on 40. His depressive mother, Fiona (Toni Collette), has raised him with hippy values and a grisly haircut which make him a target for bullying at his new school. Even the playground nerds reject him. When Fiona attempts suicide, Marcus realises that two is a dangerously small family unit and decides to expand it. Unfortunately for Will, he happens to be around on the fateful day.
Working Title made Hornby's previous novel, High Fidelity, with a British director, Stephen Frears, and an Americanised story, transposed to Chicago. About A Boy takes the opposite tack. It returns to London (trendy Clerkenwell this time, rather than Hornby's grungier stamping grounds of Holloway and Finsbury Park). But the directors and co-writers are Americans.
Paul and Chris Weitz, who previously made American Pie, seem at first an odd choice. But they keep the action moving along nimbly - often using wipes to zip between the various characters - and show an empathy for the British setting. Besides, American Pie was beneath the gross-out humour, a sweet-tempered comedy of embarrassment involving emotionally arrested males: in fact, not unlike this.
Hornby's writing - so effortless on the page - presents a minefield for the screen adaptor, with its ambiguous mix of New Lad bravado and New Man anxiety. The film of Fever Pitch failed completely to capture it; High Fidelity used the uneasy device of having the protagonist speak straight to camera. About A Boy is even trickier, since the book is told from two points of view, with alternate chapters following Will and Marcus. The film weaves together their contrasting thoughts in voice-over and, while Will's inevitably dominates, Nicholas Hoult as the quirky, isolated Marcus definitely holds his own. It's elegantly done, though the film constantly threatens to turn into a male bonding two-hander, at the expense of the secondary roles.
The smart screenplay is full of lines not in the original novel but exactly nailing its sentiments. The most fundamental change is the loss of a major subplot triggered by the 1994 suicide of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, presumably because the setting has been updated to the present - and also because the writers felt one suicide bid was quite enough for a light comedy. While well handled, their alternative is a little pat: the essence of a Hornby novel is the unresolved messiness of his people's lives. It also has the effect of marginalising a number of characters, including the most forceful female one, Marcus's rebellious schoolmate Ellie.
Hornby's novels have always appealed to women, but translated to the screen, his female characters tend to come across as bit players (High Fidelity) or whining killjoys (Fever Pitch). It was a good move here to cast a powerful presence like Toni Collette as the potentially draggy Fiona, but Rachel Weisz, as Will's love interest, enters the story late in the game and has a struggle to establish herself.
Prod cos: Working Title Films, Tribeca Productions
UK dist: UIP
Int'l dist: UIP
Prods: Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro, Brad Epstein, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Scr: Peter Hedges, Chris & Paul Weitz, based on the novel by Nick Hornby
Cinematography: Remi Adefarasin
Prod des: Jim Clay
Ed: Nick Moore
Music: Damon Gough (Badly Drawn Boy)
Main cast: Hugh Grant, Nicholas Hoult, Toni Collette, Rachel Weisz Victoria Smurfit