Having acquired a taste for playing against type from his spot-on performance as an overconfident office scoundrel in "Bridget Jones's Diary," Hugh Grant really sinks his teeth and his spiky new haircut into his starring role as an even more callow cad in "About a Boy."
Londoner Will Freeman is a guy who, when asked to be godfather to a friend's baby daughter, recoils in horror and tries to talk her out of it. "I'll forget all her birthdays," he insists, "until her 18th, when I'll probably take her out to get her drunk, and let's face it, probably try to shag her."
When the same well-meaning friend says she knows he has hidden depths, Will replies, "You've always had that wrong. I really am this shallow."
Will is a guy who, after being fixed up with a pretty single mom, realizes what easy targets they are for his particular brand of love-'em-and-leave-'em charm. So he invents a fictional 2-year-old son, buys a kid's car seat, mucks it up with spilled chips and juice, then straps it in the back of his sports car as a ruse to meet vulnerable women.
Grant plays Will to the hilt and could possibly have shaken his sensitive chick-flick hero image once and for all if this movie didn't succumb to inevitable warm fuzzies in the last act.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Based on a novel by the sardonic Nick Hornsby ("High Fidelity") and directed by brothers Paul and Chris Weitz (of "American Pie" fame), "About a Boy" is also, well, about a boy -- dorky 12-year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), who latches on to a reluctant Will as a pal and role model.
They meet through one of Will's single-mom dates (with Marcus's mom's best friend). Marcus takes Will's off-hand "see you soon" remark as an invitation to turn up at the man's flat every day after school until Will realizes the kid seriously needs some help being cool. Marcus is relentlessly picked on at school. He often breaks into song absentmindedly -- and in a falsetto. And not good songs, either. More like Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly With His Song." Not to mention that his mom (Toni Colette) is a teenager's most embarrassing nightmare -- a weird, clingy hippie type blind to the fact that her son is an outcast. Oh, and she's an emotional train wreck to boot.
If Will had anything else to do, he'd probably slam the door in Marcus's face. But being a 38-year-old who's never held a job (he lives quite comfortably off royalties from a popular Christmas jingle his father wrote) or had a girlfriend for more than two months, he lets the awkward lad hang around and watch TV. That is until Will finds a use for him -- as bait for the first woman he's ever been interested in as more than a passing fancy (Rachel Weisz). She's a single mom with a teenage son. This guy just doesn't learn.
So thick with dry wit is "About a Boy" that I found myself trying to transcribe half the dialogue in my notes for this review, even though I know better than to quote them all back to you.
So refreshingly incisive is Grant's performance that for the first time in his career he'll probably appeal more to guys than to their girlfriends who drag them to this movie for the Hugh factor. Yet you know there's a soul somewhere inside the character because the movie is about him finding it -- eventually -- and that makes him likable on a more traditional level.
Even though it focuses on Will and Marcus, "About a Boy" does alter Hornsby's tale somewhat to follow the reformed bad boy formula that has always been a fantasy of chick flick screenwriters. But it's the journey that counts, and going along on this ride you're in for plenty of cunning, cutting comedy.