No man is an island. – Jon Bon Jovi
This quote is the theme of the movie, discussed in voice-over by the main character at the very beginning, and then again at the very end. Will Freeman considers himself “an island”; completely self-sufficient, and in need of no other islanders to share with him his realm. To be perfectly honest I have never really liked living with other people, so was very much drawn to this movie from the opening scene back in 2002 when I was fourteen years younger. Now, such an island seems a little bleak.
It is always odd revisiting a film after many years have passed. Especially when it is one you felt at the time seemed to speak to you. There is a reason I have never re-read The Catcher in the Rye. I suspect that the enjoyment my 13-year-old self had reading it would be much diminished as a wiser adult. But I digress. When I first saw About a Boy I was surprised that:
Hugh Grant seemed to be playing a real person, and not the fluttering eye lidded floppy haired fop from so many of his previous films.
A “rom com” (romantic comedy) could have a little depth, make me think, appear to exist in a world I might recognize.
I am happy that watching it again so many years later it does still retain much of its inherent charm. I probably do not relate to Will as much as I did back then, but the movie was enjoyable and went by quickly. I kept thinking, “is this really going to make me laugh” and then during one scene I was suddenly laugh/crying and getting the insides of my glasses wet with my tears!
Grant plays Will Freeman, who lives a life that is certainly enviable in many respects: no wife, no kids, no job, money to live comfortably, ability to meet beautiful single women. But I suppose Will finds himself a little lacking in that final category and begins to date divorced single mothers. Then he attends a SPAT (Single Parents Alone Together) self-help group meeting, pretending to be the father of a two-year-old son named Ned. Through some oddity involving a date with a woman there who knows the mother of our titular “boy” Will eventually befriends the 12-year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult, who lately plays Beast in the X-Men films, and used to date Jennifer Lawrence).
I must sheepishly admit that I did like the Hugh Grant persona to some degree in those previous films, especially Four Weddings and a Funeral, regardless of how annoying his typical character back then was. About a Boy seems to be the point in his career when he either got a better agent, or simply made a conscious decision that he should try to act rather than simply react to the actors around him.
Marcus’s mother (“was clearly insane, and appeared to be wearing a yeti”- Will) Fiona (Toni Collette) is a vegetarian, neo-hippie, and quite depressed. All three of these conditions help to make his school-life more difficult than your average already difficult middle-school experience. His solid brown shoes, sweaters knitted by his mother, and occasional singing of mid-70s lite-rock hits during class without realizing it does not endear him to his fellow students. Marcus provides the viewer with a second occasional voice-over, helping to explain the action.
About a Boy began as a book by Nick Hornby, who is a favorite author of mine. He also wrote High Fidelity which was adapted into a fine movie starring John Cusack. The filmmakers who adapted High Fidelity moved the action from London to Chicago, but this time with About a Boy we stay in the UK. Both have music as a recurring theme, and the soundtrack to About a Boy was written and performed by Badly Drawn Boy, who is some sort of lite-rockish, neo-folk English singer who always wears a knit hat. At the time it came out I found his music endearing, and enjoyed how it strung the movie together. All these years later it reminds me of Jack Johnson, and I was more impressed with the U2 and Roberta Flack songs included. Redo the sound and ditch Badly Drawn Boy! As a matter of fact, both he and Jack Johnson can end their careers and do the world a favor! Uh oh, another digression.
Nick Hornby, if you’ve never read him, is what I would categorize as a very smart contemporary writer. His books are not very long, and they all speak with what I suppose is his voice. They tend to be written in first-person narrative, wherein you easily hear the main character and understand all his (or her) quirks and motivations. Hornby has also gained some success writing screenplays lately. I believe he was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for last year’s Brooklyn (a tremendous movie, and an even better book). With all of that said, Hornby did not write the screenplay for About a Boy.
I am discussing other things besides the movie because I feel I have already given away too much of the plot along with one very funny line. Will and Marcus befriend each other. Will understands what a boy needs more than Fiona does. Through their friendship Will becomes more open to the idea that his island does not have to be a population of simply one. That said, it is not the typical romantic comedy which has Will and Fiona carrying on at the end. It is more about the man and the boy and their friendship. And yes, I do know that John Donne said “no man is an island”, not Jon Bon Jovi.
This is probably the first romantic comedy reviewed in the series. A movie to enjoy that is not in any way cerebral, or taxing. I feel like a commoner introducing silly nonsense to a group of smart people. However, very much recommended, good acting by all parties! In 2018 let’s do “52 Rom Coms”! It made me chuckle out loud just to type that.
—Stu Moore is a friend of the proprietor of this blog. If not lolling in his university office cavalierly responding to outside stimuli, he can often be found walking a dog, or reading a book.