The key scene in About a Boy
(whose plot revolves, among other things, around the hideous eyebrows of a 12 year-old bowl-haired British kid) is actually the very first one (after the opening credits montage). In it, Hugh Grant, whose role is structured as an adult growing from a boy into a man, is simply sitting on a couch listening and thinking. But if you take a close look at his body language, the man is physically acting his ass off, and it sets the tone for what is not only his finest work to date (by a country mile -- he's very good in Notting Hill
and almost perfect in Bridget Jones
, which makes up for the rest of his career which I found anywhere from miserable to mediocre; just couldn't stand all that blinking and stuttering and bad choice of scripts). With his shoulders slumped, his posture terrible, his knees together, and his confused eyes, Grant nails what a boy looks and sits like in exactly that kind of situation in adolescence.
From then on, Grant follows his arc brilliantly (quite a feat given the film was obviously shot out of sequence), growing into his adult posture and facial expressions until he's a real man at the end -- looking his best on film. Grant's surprisingly great performance is what turns the entire film from a merely good movie into almost great pop entertainment. It doesn't have quite the pull that Notting Hill
did for me (the romance element is lacking, and the supporting cast can't live up to the likes of Gina McKee), but as a character study and piece of comedy I pretty much loved the thing.
Something I don't think I've ever discussed either in person or on internet posts about a movie (either period or contemporary) is costume design, and especially not among the most important things in a film. But I'll say that About a Boy
contains probably my favorite costume design in a movie since The Fifth Element
, the last time I noticed wardrobe being so spectacular (of course, that's because it was Jean-Paul Gaultier and he put Milla Jovovich in hot white bandages). Of course, Oscars always go to period films -- shit, period films are all that are ever nominated -- but I think contemporary work is almost as difficult. You have to express character in clothes we're familiar with, and it's the little nuances that make the difference. Grant looks fantastic in his Noel Gallagher nylon jackets (with collar turned immaturely up like a cocky kid), his metallic hip jeans, and his "trainers." Toni Collette gets to look like a Yeti hippie most of the time, and it's a testament to her acting skill that she makes such wonderfully ridiculous clothes look comfortable on her, like she's worn them her whole life. I wasn't noticing the clothing to the point of distraction, but I noticed them enough to say that it's outstanding, a small technical crew job that won't get any credit whatsoever, so that's why I'm underscoring it here. Give it as much due as I can.
As for the script and direction by the Weitz brothers, it's a solid if not amazing Hornby adaptation, shot well enough to look slick and competent, but never really outstanding. The best lines are Hornby's, and the film is predictably slimmed down from novel form to simplistic movie depth. However, I give credit to them for choosing to turn what could have been cliched confrontation scenes into smarter, more unusually human and complex situations -- sitcom predicaments made realistic. I bought into most of the narrative, which is quite a compliment given the inherent movie-ness of the material (right down to some too-neatly-tied-up plot strings at the end). And in the end, the best move the Weitzes made was to shut the hell up, stop flying around, and just sit back and watch Grant become the British Tom Hanks, an actor with such sharp comic timing and charming grace that you almost fail to notice the darkness lurking beneath the surface that makes him both vulnerable and heroic. It also takes some of the heat off of Rachel Weisz, who is heart-stoppingly beautiful but given nothing to do of merit, and off of that poor fucking kid's eyebrows.
(P.S. After just learning that comments aren't archived, I'm moving my comment on the kid's brows into the post proper, because I'm so happy with what I wrote. There goes modesty.... : It was like they were alive, and drowning, and the only way to get air was to crawl up his forehead until they found the sweet oxygen of the sky, only to be foiled by the mop of head hair, stifling them forever.)