“About a Boy” is the story of a shallow man appropriately named Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) who believes, contrary to John Donne, that every man is an island.
Or at least he believes that that a man can be an island if he tries to, and that if he tries very hard, he can be Ibiza, a highly habitable, even idyllic, self-contained island with no reason ever to leave. Will has enough money from the royalties of his father’s Christmas novelty song to pay for a fancy stereo system, espresso maker, and HDTV, and he divides his life into half-hour segments, because he doesn’t want to commit to anything much longer than that. Up to his late 30’s, he has successfully avoided any emotional entanglements, indeed, he has pretty much avoided any emotion and pretty much any thought, except the thought that his life is pretty much perfect.
In other words, chaos is about to strike, and we will have the pleasure of seeing Will’s humiliation and misery as he discovers that Donne probably had it right the first time.
Will has insulated himself so well from romantic emotional entanglements that he decides that the perfect relationship is one with a single mother. They have low expectations and a sympathetic listener can get pretty far with them. So, he pretends to be a single parent himself and makes up a two-year-old child so that he can attend meetings of SPAT (Single Parents Alone Together). A mother in the group brings a friend’s 12-year-old named Marcus (the thankfully un-movie-kid-like Nicholas Hoult) along on a picnic. Marcus is isolated but does not want to be. His single mother is severely depressed and even the outcasts at school think he is too much of a dork to hang out with.
And so, with the inability to process other people’s reactions and total disregard for his own vulnerability that only a pre-teen could survive, Marcus just shows up at Will’s home every afternoon to watch television and ultimately insists on becoming the closest thing to a friend that Will has ever known.
I know what you’re thinking – this is manipulative claptrap from a Hallmark Hall of Fame made-for-TV movie. That’s because there is so much appeal in this kind of theme that even a lousy script and poor production values can’t completely destroy it. But when it is done well, or even very, very well, as it is here, it is one of the most purely, satisfyingly enjoyable films of the year.
We know from Bridget Jones’s Diary and even Small Time Crooks that Hugh Grant relishes playing a cad. Freed from the obligation to be the Perfect Boyfriend of “Notting Hill”-type movies, he gives us a superb performance of great honesty and subtlety and flawless comedy timing. Parents should know that the movie has some strong language (two uses of the f-word, a lot for a PG-13) and some sexual references (Will is an unabashed love-em-and-leave-em guy). A parent is clinically depressed and attempts suicide and the child feels responsible. Another child becomes hysterical about the prospect of his mother dating. Marcus’ mother fears that Will has an improper interest in Marcus. Characters drink and smoke.
Families who see this movie should talk about how we decide just how much of an island we want to be. Why is it important to Will not to have any relationships? Why are the kids in school so mean to Marcus? How are Will and Marcus alike and how are they different? Is it right for him to believe that it is his responsibility to make his mother feel better? How does Will’s relationship with Marcus make him more interested in a relationship with Rachel? What kind of grown-up will Marcus be? How does helping Marcus change Will’s feelings about him? Families should also talk about the definition of girlfriend that Will and Marcus discuss and Marcus’s idea about the importance of having a back-up. Why does Will watch “Frankenstein?” Does Will create a monster? Families may also want to talk about depression and its causes and treatments.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Bridget Jones’s Diaryand Four Weddings and a Funeral (very mature material). Families with younger children who enjoy this theme should watch Disney’s delightful The Kid.