erasing clouds

Commitments, Single Parenthood and Killing Me Softly

by Joseph Palis

I watched About A Boy with three other friends and a sound I haven't heard in years in movie theaters was heard again - warm, adult laughter. If unforced, mirthful laughter is the commercial gauge for this film's potent mix of humor and pathos, then Paul and Chris Weitz's cinematic adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel is a true-blue blockbuster. But chances are, this film may not be palatable for a majority whose idea of a comedy with a romantic twist is one where a girl finds true love with a man of more than average looks and charm and that it's a prerequisite for them to end up by the film's conclusion.

Authentic, unconditional love for other people, crippling isolation and pathological non-commitment are some of the elements dealt with in this movie, however. Probably not the elements that should go together in formulaic romantic comedies. Yet this film is more than just a romantic comedy. Its magic lies in its pervasive understanding of loneliness and how people moved on with their lives - loved or unloved. Too, this film has a lot of sadness in it, made even more palpable by Marcus' innocent face (played with such androgynous charm by Nicholas Hoult), and his mother's mysterious depression (Toni Collette at her heartbreaking best). Coupled by Will's (Hugh Grant) shallow but hip thirty-something cad, it works its way to tug at your emotional heartstrings and laugh unabashedly at the travails of the human heart in search of a short-term lifelong partner and other shallow pursuits. This alienation was at its unquietest when a look can provide more depth and details than words. Marcus' embarrassed but brave face when he was booed in a rock concert was easily the rawest display of emotion - that of love for another regardless of the cruel jeers and taunts from the audience. Roberta Flack's classic "Killing Me Softly" may not be the most subtle of songs to sing to one's mother, but it's the heartfelt singing - at once delightfully off-key and surprisingly mature that makes that scene thrilling and goose bump-inducing.

Much of the film's charm lies in the voice-overs of Will - very winsomely and winningly played by Grant. His fey attempts to meet girls are directly proportional to his preference for single mothers. His blissful unawareness of other people's plight and his misguided but comic ways to provide short-term remedies are laser-precise. The script picks the best lines from Nick Hornby's novel and skillfully integrated these to create a rich cinematic palette reminiscent of Preston Sturges' witty talkies. Each line was delivered with panache and authenticity, occasionally punctuated by Grant's facile facial expressions, Collette's tearful outbursts and Hoult's almost-feminine adolescent voice at the delicious point of breaking into a man's drawl.

The film also explored other aspects the working class and the affluent both experienced in different degrees: the innate cruelty of school children towards the sensitive ones, the well-meaning but irksome friends who perpetually advise us how to lead our lives, the loneliness in the midst of plenty, and the debilitating melancholy of the un-empowered.

The film's conclusion plays for the zoon politikon nature of humans. And just like real life where things are always open-ended and are not neatly resolved to assure people that what they fantasize will be true, the film's ending resisted the temptation of overdoing the sentiments. The film, like Mike Leigh's searing drama Secrets & Lies, ultimately opted for a more realistic ending rather than dissolve its strong premise by predictable mush.

Similar to High Fidelity - another film adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel, the music plays a crucial role. Badly Drawn Boy's music became very interesting objective-correlative to the story. The raw and grunge emotionality of the film found a perfect equivalent in Bad Drawn Boy's lyrics and musical insouciance.

Will said that he envisioned himself as the main character in a sitcom and never envisioned ensemble contributions from people, but on point of performance, About A Boy's ultimate charm is its ensemble acting. Grant, whose film career choices has been mixed is perfect as Will. His bumbling, big-eyed stares that endeared him to audiences via Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Englishman Who Went Up The Hill But Came Down A Mountain, but were a tad irritating and tiring in subsequent films, were nicely held in check. His taste in clothes and erudite choice of words appropriately conveyed the life of a stylish but superficial man. Collette, dressed perennially in what may be appropriately called as hippy core but is closer to wiccan chic was, as usual, reliably inch-perfect in her delineation of a suicidal hippy single mother who wants her son to be unafraid of life and be free of the impediments rigid conventions impose. Her controlled weeping and depressive moods were elegantly and gracefully executed. Best of all is Nicholas Hoult as a troubled child whose love and loyalty for his mother were palpably felt in the smallest of gestures and expressions. He looks extraordinarily ordinary and that may account for the authenticity he imbues to his role. Almost like the non-actors in Vittorio de Sica films in that their inherent artlessness conveyed volumes of feelings not even a seasoned actor can equal. It is probably unfair to say that Hoult stole the thunder from Grant, but he is such a scenery-chewer, he is compulsively watchable.

I cannot say that this is the best film about laying promises and commitments, but About A Boy is so unpretentious and different-kind-of-funny that moviegoers should be advised that different parts of ourselves may respond to this film without us fully comprehending what touched us.

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