Based on Nick Hornby’s bestseller, this gentle romantic comedy comes from the makers of Hugh Grant’s other rom-coms (“Four Weddings,” “Notting Hill,” “Bridget Jones”) by way of the Weitz brothers (American Pie). The result issurprisingly effective — excellent performances, character-based comedy and even a few serious moments.
Will (Grant) is a 38-year-old Londoner with no responsibilities who pretends to be a single dad to pick up single mums. But his scam unravels when he meets Marcus (newcomer Nicholas Hoult), a nebbish 12-year-old raised against the grain by his bleeding-heart, vegetarian, suicidal mother (Toni Collette). Before they realise what’s happening, Will and Marcus become friends…and they start helping each other grow up and make sense of the world around them.
The key here is Hornby’s wonderful power of observation, most notably that “once you open your door to one person, anyone can come in”. As these characters all move from isolated loners to relying on each other, the film never pounds its point in–even the big set pieces are slightly askance, just giving more insight into the characters without preaching.
The Weitzes add nice little spins (the “Bride of Frankenstein” clips are great), keeping things breezy and yet quite sincere under the surface. And the actors are wonderful: Hoult is a real discovery, an authentic one-off kid. Grant again plays with his on-screen persona, a bit more bitter and acerbic than usual, keeping the mumbling to a minimum. Rachel Weisz does a nice supporting turn as his new love interest. And Collette, as usual, somehow manages to turn her pathetic comic character into someone we actually care about and are interested in. It’s hard to imagine another actress making her even remotely as quirky and endearing as this.
There’s also a fantastic score by Darren Gough (aka Badly Drawn Boy). Where it puts a foot wrong, perhaps, is in the incessant internal-thought narration from Will and Marcus — some of it is necessary (and funny), while at other times it’s quite intrusive. But this isn’t bad enough to damage what is otherwise a thoroughly engaging, surprisingly touching British comedy.