With the arrival of another “Star Wars” film from Fox comes another Hugh Grant-headlined counteroffensive from Universal, “About a Boy” — and one that should achieve much of the success of their “Phantom Menace” alternative, 1999’s “Notting Hill.” While not as enjoyable as that romantic comedy, this adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel does offer a sweet and funny alternative to any sort of sci-fi shenanigans.
Grant plays the too-appropriately monikered Will Freeman, a 30-something Londoner who has managed to avoid all responsibility in life. Thanks to the regular royalty checks for a hit song his late father penned, Will has never held a job, and the self-serving, responsibility-free mode of living also extends to his “love” life — or so to speak. In his ongoing pursuit of racking up notches on his bedpost, Will decides to invent an imaginary son and attend single parent meetings. Little does he know that as an indirect result of this plan of action, a very real 12-year-old boy by the name of Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) will become a large part of his life.
The story may take a rather circuitous route toward establishing what is the key relationship between the film, but once that gets going, so does the film. Grant and newcomer Hoult have a nicely unforced chemistry that almost never descends into schmaltz–quite a feat considering that the main thrust of the story is decidedly sentimental: Will discovers what’s missing in his pampered existence through Marcus, and Marcus emerges from his shell with Will’s guidance. The pair of them also have a nice rapport with Toni Collette, who plays Marcus’ troubled hippie mother Fiona.
The chemistry is a bit lacking, however, when Will meets the woman of his dreams, single mom Rachel (Rachel Weisz), making this relationship angle feel even more of an afterthought than it already does. But Weisz, as the rest of the cast, is quite likable and hence able to make any rough spots forgivable. This in no more the case than in one fairly syrupy scene that Grant and Hoult are able to salvage: a “Mandy Moore moment” where a musical performance is suddenly, somehow augmented by out-of-nowhere instrumental accompaniment.
But I suppose such maudlin missteps are par for the course whenever bad boy filmmakers (in this case, original “American Pie” brothers Chris and Paul Weitz) decide to take on less crass material. Luckily for them — and for us — such mistakes are kept to a minimum, and “About a Boy” will warm your heart without making you feel guilty about it.