A cad is one of those guys who might look reprehensible on paper but is so disarming in person that you completely forget to punch him in the nose. With a cad at the center of your story you don't have to worry about casting a hero and antagonist. The true cad embraces both and lets them do battle in one convenient persona. A cad has always sounded uniquely British. Or maybe it's just that Hugh Grant plays the role so effortlessly in the new film "About A Boy," based on the bestselling novel by fellow Brit Nick Hornby.
Grant plays Will Freeman, a man who has everything but does nothing. He's been living off the royalties to a novelty Christmas song his father wrote in 1958. He's a stylish and indulgent bachelor who hasn't had a relationship last more than two months. Except for the messy breaking up part, Will considers that a good thing. When his sister asks him to be godfather to her baby daughter, Will must explain just how inappropriate a role model he is -- it's not an act, insists Will, he truly IS that shallow.
He then proceeds to hit a new low by fibbing his way into a support group called SPAT - Single Parents Alone Together - after realizing that single women with children are a professional bachelor's dream: lots of pent-up sexuality without a lot of expectations. Again, we forget that Will Freeman should be punched in the nose and begin to anticipate his redemption.
It comes in the form of 12 year-old Marcus, the nerdy son of a suicidal friend of a woman Will tried to hit on at the single parents meeting. Will Freeman may be shallow, but one thing shallow people know is how cruel the world can be to 12 year old boys with bad haircuts, ugly shoes, overprotective New Age mothers and the odd habit of unconsciously breaking out into song. By the time Will sets out to redeem Marcus we know that Marcus has already redeemed Will.
Speaking of redemption, I was reminded of another recent film "Life or Something Like It" that also attempted to be a modern tale of an attractive but shallow person forced to reexamine life. Why is "About a Boy" funnier, more uplifting and infinitely more involving? I think I know the answer, and please allow me a small rant. No matter what story Hollywood gets its hands on these days, the first thing they want to do is up the stakes. In "Life or Something Like It" the defining moment is when a television reporter makes her network debut doing a live prime time interview with a feared and famous TV personality. In "About a Boy" it's when Marcus prepares to commit social suicide by singing Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly" at a school assembly in order to please his mother. I'm going to argue that stakes just don't get any higher than that. Those are the stakes that mean everything. The stakes everyone understands. The stakes you can drive right in the heart. And it all makes Will Freeman's last second sacrifice one of the most heroic rescue scenes you're likely to see all summer.
But the main reason "About a Boy" succeeds is that by the time the film gives itself a happy ending -- what otherwise might be a ridiculously pat and happy ending -- it has actually gone to the trouble of earning it.
© 2002 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 6/24/02
About a Boy
France/US/UK - 2002