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Needing People 

Hugh Grant had already made 13 films when he burst into American consciousness, eyelids aflutter, in 1994's Four Weddings and a Funeral. Since then he's worked steadily in leading roles, some good, some bad, many mediocre. For a while in the mid-1990s it appeared Grant might get stuck in variations of the romantic lead forever stammering his way into the heroine's heart. That's mostly what he was called on to do even in the superior Sense and Sensibility. Grant didn't play quite so tongue-tied in the 1999 hit Notting Hill, but most of the credit for that film's success went to Julia Roberts. A hopeful change began last year when Grant played the despicable cad in Bridget Jones's Diary, a picture whose buzz once again surrounded its female star, Renée Zellweger. Now in his current About a Boy, Grant gets both a character with challenging complexity and a chance to command the center of attention. His fans will be delighted to find he's equal to the task.

Adapted from the Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) novel and directed by brothers Chris and Paul Weitz, About a Boy is the story of the aptly named Will Freeman (Grant), a contemporary Londoner living the life everybody dreams of but perhaps nobody really wants. Will is a rich idler. Back in 1958 his father wrote a smash Christmas song that made him fabulously rich, after which he had the decency to die leaving all the money to Will. Will's inherited fortune means that he's never had to work a day in his life, an opportunity he has resolutely refused to let slip through his lazy grasp. Though jobless, Will is nonetheless quite busy. He finds that his routine of fine dining, shopping, listening to music, watching television, playing pool and visiting his hair stylist fills his days to the point of bursting. As for the nights, well there's as much sex as possible, of course.

And that's where the complications come in. Sex is good and good for you, but partners keep hoping for thoughtfulness, generosity and commitment, qualities Will finds almost appalling. Sex partners have in common with pets and children the incessant habit of wanting to be cared for. So, in fact, Will would dispense with sex partners entirely if he could just figure out how to have sexual intercourse without them. Then he discovers the magic of single mothers. Single mothers are inevitably so devoted to their children they barely have any time for Will aside from the actual act of sex itself. Is this what heaven is like?

Well, no, because heaven, presumably, involves eternal bliss. And single mothers come with children and with friends who have children, and pretty soon Will is involved with a lovable but troubled boy named Marcus (Nicholas Hoult). Children have their pleasures, but nothing approaching eternal bliss. What's worse, Marcus' depressed hippie mom, Fiona (Toni Collette), is not even someone Will yearns to give a tumble. In short, fighting and screaming all the way, Will discovers he has a heart he'd just as soon cut out and fling away if only it weren't filled so damn full of detestable caring about someone else.

About a Boy doesn't take us any place surprising. But it follows the scenic route rather than the freeway to get where we know it's heading. The writing is uniformly fine, delivering laughs throughout without once resorting to diaper jokes or other forms of gross-out humor that almost always accompany films involving children. And this is especially commendable from screenwriters/directors who, in their maiden outing, American Pie, delivered a scene in which a teenager accomplishes carnal knowledge of baked goods.

Taking its cue from author Hornby's instinctive subtlety, the screenplay routinely under-emphasizes its situations. Marcus manages to wedge his way into Will's life with passive willfulness rather than the dramatic wheedling lesser filmmakers would have chosen. The kid makes little in the way of either noise or demands, and Will, routinely taking what seems the path of least resistance, finds it initially less trouble just letting the boy hang around than summoning the energy to shoo him away.

Solid as the writing is, much of the credit for this film's appeal goes to its star. Think of the antics Robin Williams would have pulled had he played Will. There'd be much making of faces and frequent bouts of pacing. In contrast, Grant's Will can barely stir himself. It's true that when Will is flabbergasted Grant still cuts loose with a frenzy of eyelash batting. But Will isn't a character much given to flabbergast. Such a reaction requires involvement and concern and interferes extensively with slouching. Very, very nicely indeed, even when Will is finally propelled into action, he largely gets it wrong. And that very fact is the kind of touch that sets this picture apart from the cinematic pabulum on which we will have to dine for most of the summer.

click to enlarge Will Freeman (Hugh Grant, right) checks out yet another available woman (Rachel Weisz) in the engaging Weitz brothers comedy, About a Boy.
  • Will Freeman (Hugh Grant, right) checks out yet another available woman (Rachel Weisz) in the engaging Weitz brothers comedy, About a Boy.
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