1. About a Boy (2002)
Adapted from Nick Hornby’s “dick lit” novel of the same name, About a Boy follows self-described, self-centered perennial bachelor Will (Hugh Grant operating at peak Hugh Grant) on his journey of self-discovery. He’s aided along by Marcus (introducing a before he was hot Nicholas Hoult), the geeky, dreadfully coiffed, twelve-year-old, who is decidedly uncool in all the ways Will fancies himself otherwise. In a not so shocking twist, they wind up having more in common than initially thought as their relationship evolves from pity to blackmail to a genuine love story, resplendent with the requisite grand romantic gesture in the form of Grant’s best musical number until this year’s Paddington 2.
Screenwriters Peter Hedges, Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz give us two first person narrators in Will and Marcus. Where Marcus is wise and world-weary for a boy of his age, Will is developmentally arrested. Marcus’ problems manifest both at home (depressed, suicidal mum) and at school (ruthless bullies), although he is far more concerned with keeping her safe than his own self-preservation. In fact, he initially recruits Will as a potential suitor for Fiona (the wonderfully cast and costumed Toni Collette). Marcus is earnest and compassionate enough to attempt aid, and just young enough to think his actions can make a difference. By contrast, Will is selfish and cynical. His behavioral tendencies oscillate between self-preservation and self-destruction, a combination that becomes less aloof and charming over time. Will acknowledges, “You have to mean things to help people. Me? I didn’t mean anything, about anything, to anyone.” This point of resigned pride (or proud resignation) has effectively walled him off from the world around him. But in time, he is able to open up to Marcus since he sincerely believes himself to be the less pitiable of the pair.
Having taken to heart the misattributed Jon Bon Jovi manifesto that “No man is an island,” Will proudly considers himself to be just that. He’s a hip party island, like Ibiza, perfect for fleeting flings and Swedish tourists. Though it becomes clear that Will’s island has cut back on the drug-induced dance parties and instead floats purposelessly in the shallow waters of his existence. He’s never held a real job, comfortably living off the royalties of his father’s one hit wonder “Santa’s Super Sleigh,” making Christmas a necessarily difficult time for him. He spends his days - efficiently dissected into 30-minute units of time - watching television, playing pool, and having his hair “carefully disheveled.” Such activities keep him so busy he doesn’t know how regular people manage to squeeze in professional obligations. (I can certainly relate: Exercise - 2 units; watching About a Boy - 3 units; writing about About a Boy - 4 units.) Buoyed by strong writing and performances, the film is a sweeter, darker, and funnier romantic comedy than most Hugh Grant vehicles. And while his Will is almost unilaterally focused on his next romantic relationship, the central conflicts exist in the relationships between parents and their children, or rather creators and their creations.
After his parents’ apparent passings, Will’s holiday traditions tend toward solo viewings of James Whale’s Frankenstein. Gothic horror aside, obvious parallels can be drawn between both narratives. As our Dr. Frankenstein, Will is narcissistic and shows a flair for invention and an appetite for self-aggrandizement, though lacking the former’s thirst for knowledge and discovery. (He wouldn’t get far on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?). His creations - taking the form of made up accounts and fake children - veer on the self-destructive and generally end up with him affably shirking all responsibility. Upon designating single moms an untapped dating goldmine, Will attends SPAT (“Single Parents Alone Together”) meetings in search of grateful, commitment-phobic SMILFs. It is through this group that Will meets Marcus and Fiona and a spat of wronged single moms. Of his invented two-year-old, Ned, Will wistfully admits, “He’s the one taking care of me, teaching me the ways of the world.” This line lands as a clichéd joke, but also glancingly references the necessity for human connection and parental responsibility that pervades Will’s story and Frankenstein. He’s hit on a fundamental human truth about how the desire to understand ourselves is only eclipsed by the need and want to have someone else - even just one other person - understand, too. In the end, Marcus - this surrogate son figure - actually does.
Just as the novel’s central psychological question surrounds the identity of the real monster, the film asks the same of the titular “boy.” One could make the argument that either Will or Marcus is the creator or the creation, and such evidence is only further obscured by both “boys” maintaining ownership of the narrative (and their inherited trauma) at different points in the film. A contemporary reading of the novel inflames the understanding that trauma lives on, and responsibility flows back through time: “I’d created a monster or maybe he’d created me.”
The horror only continues with Marcus haunting Will’s local haunts, eventually discovering that Ned was a complete fabrication. After Marcus tracks down Will at home and makes a friendly threat to return, Will sarcastically quavers, “Ooohhh, I’m really scared.” And he is. For allowing Marcus into his apartment inevitably gives the boy access to his life. Over the course of the film, as Will’s protective walls start to fall, he laments the fact that, “Once you open your door to one person, anyone can come in.” Other than the obvious literal translation, he, of course, is referring to the metaphysical door to his emotional core. As an audience, we are granted entry to several flats in the film, and each space reflects the psyche of its inhabitants. Will’s fancy, technologically-advanced flat is inaccessible in its prioritizing of form over function, and would immediately belie his invented offspring. Fiona and Marcus’ flat is just as kooky as they are. When Will follows Marcus in on the prophetic “dead duck day,” he enters their lives more permanently. The flat belonging to Rachel Weisz's luminous Rachel is a messy live/work space, hitting home the fact that, unlike Will, she actually does things. These physical spaces are symbolic stand-ins for the lives and worlds these characters have created. And by that comparison, allowing strangers into your home is akin to letting them into the deepest parts of yourself. By the film’s end, Will is ready to build that bridge. And what will make these monsters happy? Beloveds, of course.