Monday, January 17, 2011

Now's The Time To Be One

So I’m sitting here, staring straight ahead. Pretty much out of ideas. I’m feeling pretty much done with the whole thing, even as I continue to look for a job. All I know is that when faced with the terrifying prospect of being a p.a. on some crappy reality show I begin to wonder if I should just give up, get the hell out of Dodge, move to a place like Santa Fe where it’s much quieter. Of course, I know for a fact that the movie theaters there are pretty lousy so that might not actually do much good. Maybe I’m stuck here. The other night I went to an art gallery opening where I spent some time chatting with this girl who seemed pretty cool and actually interested in talking to me but at the end of it all when we said good night I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to do. Ask her out? Get her number? Act like a cool guy who isn’t broke and jobless? Maybe I was misreading the signs. I wasn’t totally sure that she was even single. It doesn’t matter anyway. So I sit here. Occasionally leaving, buying groceries, going to the movies, going on long walks, wondering how long some of these walks might end up being. And then when I’m done walking sometimes I sit here, staring straight ahead.

For a few years in the early aughts following their smash success with 1999’s AMERICAN PIE the brother team of Chris and Paul Weitz moved away from teen comedies towards what appeared to be a latter day Billy Wilder kind of thing, creating mainstream character driven pieces that had a certain amount of depth to them, willing to infuse what appeared to be romantic comedies on the surface with the right kind of darkness, the mixture of sweet and sour. That seems to have ended as each brother has branched out into separate directing careers helming would be franchises (THE GOLDEN COMPASS, THE VAMPIRE’S ASSISTANT) as well as sequels in series that had already been established (ECLIPSE, LITTLE FOCKERS) which seems sort of like a case of little risk, big-ass paychecks for a reward. It’s kind of a shame because while 2004’s IN GOOD COMPANY, which Paul wrote and directed by himself, was never quite as effective as it maybe should have been this approach seemed to really click when the pair traveled across the pond to make the Nick Hornby adaptation ABOUT A BOY. The film did fairly decent business along with receiving strong reviews and even an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay but has always felt more than a little underappreciated maybe because Universal decided to make it a sacrificial lamb by opening it directly opposite ATTACK OF THE CLONES in May 2002. That counter-programming approach of Hugh Grant vs. STAR WARS worked pretty well with NOTTING HILL in 1999 but not having Julia Roberts this time around probably made the competition a little too lopsided. It’s really too bad, because ABOUT A BOY is a lovely film with it’s own kind of charm, serving as a terrific showpiece for Hugh Grant in a story that contains a surprising level of seriousness. More than any film they’ve been involved with before or since the Weitzes offer an approach to this film that consistently brings a true visual intelligence to a story that is after all mostly people talking in rooms. I wish there were more movies like it being made now which contained characters genuinely willing to contemplate things in life, even if they were used solely as sacrificial lambs against giant blockbusters. After all, there’s gotta be something else to go see sometimes, right? I only wish.

Well-off Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) lives a leisurely life in London doing very little beyond watching TV, listening to music and going out on dates with women that rarely lead to a second date, by his own choice. After a brief, nearly accidental, relationship with a single mother shows him the benefits of coming off as a good guy, he decides to peer into the world of single mothers by pretending he has a child of his own. Going out on a few dates with one of them leads him to encountering 12 year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), the lonely son of Fiona (Toni Collette) who herself is going through a massive depression. After Will aids in rescuing Fiona after a botched suicide attempt, Marcus gets the bright idea that if this new guy dates his mom that will solve all their problems and she’ll never try this again. When Will tries to brush them off after one lunch date Marcus quickly figures out his charade of not actually having a kid but the two of them soon begin an odd friendship nevertheless. And when Will finds himself attracted to yet another single mother named Rachel (Rachel Weisz), he has to convince Marcus to take part in one more charade in an attempt to not seem like the total blank he really is.

Some of the pleasures of ABOUT A BOY may be minor but as its story goes on the film becomes genuinely satisfying, going to emotional levels that help place it in a considerably different category than the incessantly upbeat scripts Hugh Grant has played in several times for Richard Curtis. I like a few of those movies, don’t get me wrong, this one just seems to go a little deeper beyond a timeworn moral that friendship will solve everything and maybe because of its acknowledgement of what a certain sort of self-imposed isolation into ‘island living’ can do to a person I find myself returning to it more as time goes on. Merging its sly humor with a suicide attempt by one of the leads, depression amidst the holidays and genuine sense of resignation in life through what the characters are going through, Wilder’s THE APARTMENT is definitely an influence but ABOUT A BOY’s striking rhythms, dual narration and anamorphic visual stylization make it also easy to imagine that the Weitz Brothers had a DVD of CASINO right by their side all during making it and this seems to have inspired them in all the right ways. In a time when way too many characters in films turn out to be total ciphers, here’s one where the lead is intentionally a blank, gladly doing “nothing” as he goes by himself in his own kind of island living with no particular goals to doing anything beyond that until he finally comes to the realization that he has to do something, to feel something. Of course, unlike me this guy’s got plenty of money though I have known a few people out there just content to not do much of anything and while I may have a few more goals in life than Will does lately I can identify with this aimlessness, of drifting, of dividing your day into “units”, as if making it a point to avoid thinking about anything else. It’s something I can feel my life becoming more and more just as Will quietly seems to realize what he’s in danger of turning into—the backstory involving his father having made his wealth by writing one cheesy Christmas song is touched upon in just a few brief moments in dialogue, allowing the continued looks on Hugh Grant’s face whenever that song is heard to do the rest of the work with nothing more needed to be said.

Unlike the book which was set in the early 90s—the death of Kurt Cobain occurs during the narrative—the film isn’t as locked into 2002 quite as much but it occurs to me that the nature of the online world by now would give Will even less of a reason to go out into the world than he does here. He’d probably be on Facebook every hour and give that as even more of a reason not to deal with people in person. The character’s isolation seems a bit much at times considering how you’d think he would be close friends with at least somebody—the relationships with the few people we do see are never really explained which is fine—but I can actually understand this feeling of getting into your late thirties and not even wanting to try anymore, not wanting to go out to meet people, not wanting to risk anything as far as that goes, since by this point it feels much more likely that you’ll just wind up getting hurt in the end. I think I understand that last past most of all. One difference between Will and myself is that I’ve never been much for daytime TV even when unemployed but that aside, I get it, I really do. And seriously, just leave me alone, I’ve got Netflix movies to finish. The whole thing kind of cuts deep for me, being forced to acknowledge to yourself how you might really be a blank without anything to say to make you interesting and get any particular girl to like you. What would I really tell that woman from the other night or the ultra-cute waitress at the Dresden who I’ve become smitten by? I don’t think mentioning this blog is ever going to do much good.

There’s also the film’s other lead in Nicholas Hoult’s Marcus, a kid who is genuinely sad and alone but since he hasn’t had everything beaten out of him by the world just yet he’s admirably trying somehow to figure out what to do about it. The hell of dealing with other kids in school is really only briefly touched upon but this is still is the rare movie that seems to acknowledge how shitty a time childhood can really be. Part of the goal of the story from Hornby’s novel seems to specifically be to avoid what it automatically sounds like it will be about so fortunately the prospect of Will and Fiona becoming a couple never seems likely for a second, keeping things all the more unpredictable and the friendship that develops is ultimately extremely satisfying. There’s a spirit that infects the movie all through the song score by Badly Drawn Boy with the recurrence of the song “Something To Talk About” (a GRADUATE influence in how it repeats, I suppose) staying with me in particular. The ambitious visual style doesn’t always feel completely disciplined—like the mirror shot in the hair salon where the camera moves from Will in the frame to a female extra behind a pillar for no reason—but the willingness of the Weitzes to make the film this way makes it different, makes it alive, so you feel every bit of the desperation and loneliness and desire to be alone through every shot. Ultimately, part of what makes ABOUT A BOY so satisfying is that it doesn’t have to destroy the character of Will to provide him with a feel-good ending like some bogus Chris Columbus movie—actually, I’ve never seen NINE MONTHS, which Grant starred in, but maybe that’s what I’m thinking of. What I’m trying to say is that the film never cloyingly becomes about somebody who hates holding a baby, as what happens here early on, but then learns to love holding a baby. Will doesn’t need to change everything about Will but sometimes in life a little connection, a willingness to make the plotline in your life complicated and to mean something, to help you genuinely grow as a person among other people, isn’t really so bad. The rewards of ABOUT A BOY are, in the end, relatively minor and maybe don’t add up to much more than discovering the desire to close ones eyes while singing a certain song, but they are rewards nevertheless. Even if things feel just a little too happy in the end—the directing pair on the DVD audio commentary can talk about the final shot being a 400 BLOWS homage all they want but a freeze frame ending of somebody smiling is still just a little too cut and dried—there is enough messiness along the way, enough of an acknowledgement of all the crap that’s out there, so those rewards mean something. It’s not a great film but it is good enough that it feels like it’s being made by somebody building towards making a great film which makes the more recent output by the brothers that much more of a shame. Granted, I haven’t seen LITTLE FOCKERS yet, but still.

Hugh Grant does some of his best work here, burying that FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL charm as much as possible and making palpable how closed off he wants to be while paired up against the very talented Nicholas Hoult (also seen in THE WEATHER MAN—the two might be an interesting double bill) who here maybe gives one of the strongest, least cloying performances by a child actor in the past twenty years. Toni Collette never overplays Fiona’s daffiness while Rachel Weisz totally sells how special her character potentially can be to Will in relatively little screen time. Overall, there’s a sensitivity in how the actors are directed that allows respect for everyone, even the bit players (somehow I suspect that if I knew more BBC shows there would be more actors here I’d recognize), a refreshing change from how one of the Richard Curtis scripts will get a cheap laugh out of somebody having blue hair or whatever--I actually really do like a few of those movies, but those touches can sometimes really bug me. One of the things that makes ABOUT A BOY so special is how it seems to genuinely like everyone and acknowledge that they each have their own stories, their own reasons for being worried about leaving the house at the beginning of the day.

I go for walks. I shop at Trader Joe’s. I watch DVDs. I watch TCM. I drink coffee. I work on this blog. I write other things. I obsess over certain girls who have been a part of my life in the recent past. I go for walks in my neighborhood up to the Albertson’s on Hillhurst and back to my apartment, staying within my own island. And I do look for jobs but nothing I’m willing to mention on that front, at least not right now. Maybe there never will be. On the other hand, as I write this, Paul Weitz is reported to be reuniting with FOCKERS star Robert De Niro for the drama ANOTHER NIGHT, which he’ll be directing from his original script. So maybe there is hope out there, hope for some decent movies to be made, hope that at some point in the future I’ll wake up into a day that I find myself actually looking forward to. Right now, I suppose, all I have is the ability to imagine the joy of closing my eyes while singing a favorite song, lost in some sort of reverie that right now I feel I can only imagine, dreaming of a life I hope that I will someday get to live.


Nostalgia Kinky said...

This has become one of my major go-to films from the past decade. I just find the whole thing so moving and have great admiration for everything from the performances (Grant has never been better) to Badly Drawn Boy's score. What can I say, I just really relate to both the book and the film.
I really admired this piece as well and continue to appreciate how you manage to make your work so personal and yet still focus so wonderfully well on the films in question.

Unknown said...

What a thought-provoking piece you've written here Mr. Peel. I really hope your job/life situation improves - I think it's safe to say we're all pulling for ya!

As for ABOUT A BOY, count me as a great admirer of this film. From what few interviews I've read with Hugh Grant, I get the impression he'd rather do films like this than NINE MONTHS. I think he too (like most of us) has grown tired of his neurotic foppish shtick and isn't afraid to play a cad on screen and I like that this film doesn't soften the edges of his initially selfish character. Grant's character has a nice arc over the course of the film which seems so rare these days. I really feel like he's been on a journey, that his character has gone through something and he's come out changed on the other side.

I thought Nicholas Hoult was fantastic also. If you want to see another solid performance by him, check out the Tom Ford film, A SINGLE MAN. He's quite good in that. I also like the girl who played Hoult's potential girlfriend in the film. I noticed her pop up in one of the HARRY POTTER films and am curious to know what else she's done. She has a real screen presence.

Anyways, thoroughly enjoyed this review. Hang in there!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I still need to see A SINGLE MAN. J.D., interestingly at one point last night I found myself looking up Natalia Tena. There's something intriguing about her but I guess I'd never made the connection between this film and the Potters. You're very right, she definitely does have an interesting quality.

Anyway, thanks to you both for the great comments and kind thoughts about all the other stuff. Very glad you liked the piece and it's good to know this film has other fans out there.

Esoth said...

Another fan of the oddly affecting "About a Boy". Hugh Grant's performance is interesting, as ultimately is his character, although for reasons that are not altogether immediately clear. Grant's character has the obvious aspects we'd come to expect from him from earlier films, the good looks and clothes, the surface charm, even the self-deprecating way of ingratiating himself.

But where previously he had wavered somewhere near to a more composed Bertie Wooster with a man-sized heart, beneath all the beguiling blather and muttering in "About a Boy", Grant is muted and almost sourly hollow. His whole life is guided by proximity to his greatest convenience, and the avoiding of even the possibility of unpleasantness. And it leaves him empty and too dull to ache or recognize his own sadness, the source of which, is never exposited. There is one brief grace note, in the scene, IIRC, where Will's in the supermarket and hears that Christmas tune, and instead of another cutting witticism about the hackneyed nature of the song, Will instead has the most fleeting of visions of his late father standing silently in the aisle, and its a lovely moment of rising longing and loss, but it fades even as it emerges, and there's this short wake of unanswerable sadness. Something happened to Will sometime and left a hole where his soul should be. Its never explicit in the dialog or action, but Grant conveys a haggard, joyless tiredness that no amount of careful disheveling can hide.

When Will opens his door to Nicholas Hoult’s Marcus, it is the beginning of his salvation, perhaps, but that remains a work in progress right through the final credits. There is, before either of them quite recognize it, the shock of recognition between Will and Marcus, two kindred wounded spirits. By the end of the film, Will at least can feel for others, if not quite yet for himself. But he's on the way.

Michael Lear said...

Haven't seen this since the initial DVD release, but I do remember being quite fond of it. I'll have to give it another look. It is a bit depressing to see what has become of the Weitz brothers.

And maybe you should mention this blog to that girl. Your writing and analysis is always spot on, the best written movie blog in my opinion, and I've searched them all. A new entry always gets me a little excited to discover something new or re-discover something I haven't seen in a while.

I was feeling a little down and just watched Local Hero. I noticed you haven't written about it. I'm sure you've seen it, but if not, you should check it out. A good movie to lift your spirits.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thank you for those fantastic comments on Grant and his character, a terrific example of how much this film has to offer and how rewarding it can be to return to it.


Thank you for saying that, it really is greatly appreciated. I should just come back and take a look at your comment when I'm feeling down. And I haven't seen Local Hero in literally decades, so maybe it's about time I did something about that. Thanks for the recommendation!

Mapeel said...

I love this film too. Grant beautifully captures the soul that doesn't know just what to do with itself, for whom time is heavy.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: I saw The Switch on the plane. I recommend it only for some interesting underlying points to Jason Bateman's character. Bateman himself looks a uncomfortable to be in this sitcom flick, but he gets over it and there are some nice moments. And the kid Thomas Robinson is really good.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Mrs. Peel--

I'm very glad to hear that you love this film as well. The way you described Grant's character is beautiful, thank you.

And I haven't seen THE SWITCH but I do like Jason Bateman so I'll definitely put it on the queue.