About a Boy

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“About a Boy” takes the shopworn premise about a shallow adult whose life is changed by a child, and infuses it with irresistible humor and life. It’s “Big Daddy” or Disney’s “The Kid,” but with the added bonus of being watchable.

Based on a novel by Nick Hornby (who also wrote “High Fidelity”), “About a Boy” has two narrators. One is Will (Hugh Grant), an amazingly shallow London layabout still living off the royalties from a Christmas novelty song his father wrote; the other is Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), an unpopular 12-year-old boy who, through a series of strange events, becomes Will’s friend.

Will discovers that single moms are the best women to date, because all he has to do is show mild interest in the kids and suddenly he’s some kind of superman. And then, before long, the self-esteem-deprived women dump him, thus saving him the trouble of breaking it off with them. (“I’d never watched a woman cry without feeling responsible,” he says of his epiphany during the first such breakup.)

So he sets out to meet single moms, going so far as to invent a fictitious toddler of his own in order to fit in. He meets Suzie (Victoria Smurfit), and through her meets Fiona (Toni Collette), who is suicidal and whose son is Marcus. An unlikely friendship begins.

There are tinges of great drama throughout this very fine comedy, which was directed by Paul and Chris Weitz, whose “American Pie” buried its sweetness quite a bit deeper. “About a Boy” is not afraid to take its serious points seriously; in fact, it uses the ups and downs of life to ground its humor in reality. Witness Will’s reaction to following Fiona to the hospital after a suicide attempt: “It was horrible, horrible — but driving fast behind the ambulance was fantastic!” It is refreshing to hear characters say the things we would think — though we would never dare say them.

The device of dueling narrators provides the film with some unexpected humor, particularly when a scene calls for both men’s point of view — a sort of “he said/he said” situation. It is one of the movie’s several touches that skew it just slightly away from the mainstream.

Hugh Grant is wry and witty and non-stuttering as Will. The character’s selfishness stems not from believing those around him are inferior to him, but from believing he is inferior to them. It’s a fine role for Grant, whose characters are often as smarmy as they are charming. Here, he is vulernable — ultimately, as vulnerable as Marcus, whom Nicholas Hoult plays with brilliant, self-effacing mopiness.

Toni Collette, too, is magnificent — is she ever not magnificent? — as Marcus’ mum, bringing comedy to the sad scenes and gravity to the funny ones.

We must also mention the ultra-cool acoustic rock soundtrack by Badly Drawn Boy.

Movies like this make you feel happy without you realizing anyone has “made” you do anything. These are characters we care about and relate to; the fact that they speak with flair and wit makes them funnier, but no less human. The movie is a gem.

A- (; PG-13, scattered profanity, including one big one.)

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