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About Right, About Time

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*About a Boy (PG-13)
Universal Pictures

Accepted marketing wisdom would call it suicide to release a film like About a Boy the same week as Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Is it possible that distributors are heeding the wishes of adult moviegoers for quiet among the clamor, for a gentle, character-driven film amidst the pomp, special effects and laser spectacle of the usual summer blockbuster?

Probably not, but no matter. Here is a film that's pleasant, well made and -- glory be! -- only 100 minutes long, perfect for a quiet weekend afternoon's enjoyment or a Friday evening date, minus the mile-long lines, loud explosions and incessant hype.

Hugh Grant enjoys the best role of his career as Will Freeman, a self-admitted hedonist, a 38-year-old Londoner who has never had a job thanks to the royalties he continues to collect from his dead father's 1958 musical hit, "Santa's Supersleigh." "I always thought you had hidden depths," says his sister in one of her what-are-you-going-to-do-with-your-life moments. "No," Will deadpans, "I really am this shallow."

Indeed, Will is shallow enough to go chasing women by posing as a single parent at a gathering of a support group called SPAT, Single Parents Alone Together, and using the opportunity to pick up Susie, the attractive single mom of an innocuous toddler. When Susie invites Will to a SPAT picnic, she brings along Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), the 12-year-old son of her depressive friend Fiona (Toni Collette), and in an unlikely series of events, the adolescent grown-up and the grown-up adolescent bond.

While Will searches for love, in spite of his contention that "every man is an island," Marcus searches for security in a world where his mother is habitually suicidal and his schoolmates are insufferable bullies. Eventually, in a story that could have been maudlin and perfunctory, each of them finds what they're looking for as their friendship grows.

The source material and much of the engaging narrative voiceover comes from the novel by Nick Hornby, whose work seems to be a screen adapter's dream. Grant's Will, like John Cusack's character in another Hornby adaptation, High Fidelity, is made irresistible by exposing his faults with sheer abandon to the audience. The material supercedes Grant's usual fumbling and bumbling, providing him with an abundance of memorable lines, delivered with agility.

Lovely Rachel Weisz appears about halfway through the film as Will's newest love interest, also a single mom, but her character never really takes off. Toni Colette's Fiona, on the other hand, grows as the story develops, reminding us once again of the actress's remarkable range.

Nicholas Hoult's Marcus is thoroughly engaging -- he's one of those kids who always speaks up at exactly the wrong time, is awkward, sweet, troubled, needy and remarkably self-sufficient in an offbeat way. The development of Marcus' and Will's relationship lies at the heart of About a Boy, and even the pat ending never makes us doubt the sincerity of what lies at the heart of it for both of them -- trust and mutual responsibility, in other words, a point to life, a reason for being.

"Once you open your door to one person, anyone can come in," muses Will in an unusually articulate moment. It's a risk worth taking, About a Boy reminds us. The hard part is opening the door.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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