This Man is an Island
Main: Hugh Grant, Nicholas Hoult, Toni Collette
Director: Chris Weitz
Hugh Grant stars as Will, who is about the most shallow human being in existence. He is aware of this fact, and strives hard to remain so. He has no desire for attachments, is perfectly content to focus every ounce of his energy on himself. He even manages to avoid workplace relationships, since he has no job. Will, you see, lives off the royalties from a popular Christmas song written long ago by his father. The man has never had a job.
The movie opens with Will’s voice over narration of his daily existence. Much of this narration is absolutely hysterical, and is pulled off without a hitch by Grant. Even in this completely self absorbed state, you can’t help but laugh at his scathing internal commentary of the interactions that are forced upon him.
Since two hours of this would have undoubtedly get old, we have the introduction of Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), the only child of single mother Fiona (Toni Collette). Fiona is desperately depressed, and Marcus is the kind of kid who seems to have a target painted on his forehead at school. Fiona is rather oblivious to Marcus’ plight, as she has trouble focusing on anything but her own misery. Marcus wishes he could help his mother, but doesn’t know how, or even understand what’s wrong with her.
These two stories, seemingly unlikely to ever meet, do come together, due entirely to Will scheming to get himself a date without attachments. He is set up on a date with a single mother, and just as he’s tiring of her (and her attachments) she breaks up with him. He marvels at this development. A short term fling where he doesn’t have to be the bad guy and break up, it’s a miracle! Thus begins Will’s quest to seek out single mothers, going so far as to join the local chapter of SPAT (Single Parents Alone Together), make up a son, and try to scam himself a date. Which, of course, he does, with Suzie (Victoria Smurfit). On their date, a SPAT picnic, Suzie brings along Marcus, explaining that his mother is having some problems and she is watching Marcus for the day. What follows is a priceless scene of the afternoon picnic, culminating in the death of a duck via a loaf of bread.
What the group discovers after the picnic changes Marcus’ life, and he decides that he needs Will. He begins to follow Will around, show up uninvited at Will’s house, and eventually confronts Will with the fact that he knows that Will has no child. All he wants in exchange for keeping this secret is for Will to date his mother. From this point, relationships begin and end, attachments are formed, and Will is, to put it mildly, thrown entirely off his one man island (that has to be a record for the most excessive usage of the word “Will” in a single paragraph).
The primary element that makes this movie work is Hugh Grant. His performance is excellent, without a single misstep. The voice over narration, which could so easily be awful, is witty and sharp and delivered to perfection. In fact, there are so many ways this movie could have failed, it’s nothing short of miraculous that the cast and crew pulled it off at all, never mind that they did it brilliantly. The relationship between Will and Marcus develops with a delightful lack of ease, no instant bonding to annoy the viewer. The romantic element that develops is a subplot, and is not allowed to take over the movie. And the dialogue is entertaining, both funny and sad. Even when Will is feeling sorry for himself it’s hard to hate him.
Newcomer Nicholas Hoult gives a credible performance as Marcus. His social awkwardness and self-sacrificing devotion to his mother are perhaps a bit overplayed, but more as a result of the screenplay than the performance. Toni Collette gives her usual outstanding performance as the depressed Fiona. She melts into the role with an ease that makes her character complex and quirky, while giving a heartbreaking portrayal of depression.
Paul and Chris Weitz both directed and wrote the screenplay (along with Peter Hedges) for this film, and have pulled off the near impossible, characters with unlikable, annoying traits who we love anyway. Each is alone and lonely in some profound way, whether they are aware of that fact or not. These wounded people are able to come together and form some semblance of completeness without making the audience want to gag on sap. My personal prize for sap avoidance goes to the scene where there could have easily been one of those horrid one person, then two people, then the whole audience joining in a standing ovation, and they didn’t do it! That in itself should get this movie yet another half star. The score performed primarily by Badly Drawn Boy gives the movie a very, well, English feel. I don’t know how to explain what that is, but it is definitely there, and the music enhances the emotion of the film in all the right places.
About a Boy is without a doubt the best film of Hugh Grant’s career. It firmly establishes that he can indeed carry a movie without a Hollywood romance with a Hollywood superstar actress. He is charming and funny and shows some real acting skill here. The movie as a whole works marvelously well, coming together with an ending that manages to avoid being too sappy. 4 1/2 stars out of 5