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Growing Pains

Grant matures in bouncing Boy

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When John Wayne played a cowboy in 1976's The Shootist, 37 years after John Ford's Stagecoach turned him into a Western icon, nobody complained that he was returning to the genre that largely defined him over the course of several decades. And whenever Clint Eastwood picked up a gun and badge to play a cop, or Jane Fonda picked up a cause to play some shade of socially conscious activist, nobody said a word. After all, that's what these particular actors did -- and they did it well.

So when Hugh Grant once again turns on his ample "aw, shucks" neon charms to play a suave, occasionally self-effacing bachelor whose rakish demeanor and liquid mercury eyes (they practically blink, "Please rest this adorable head in your lap") are instant turn-ons to the women surrounding him, there's no reason to jeer. When given the (rare) chance, the man has shown he can do other things (for instance, his dramatic turn in the medical thriller Extreme Measures), but who can blame him for returning to the field that suits him best? Especially when he's able to offer slight variations on a theme, thereby keeping his characterizations fresh and funny?

That's certainly the case with About a Boy, a thoroughly entertaining comedy that uses Grant's own twist of acidity to prevent itself from succumbing to its own bathos. Crisply performed, energetically directed by American Pie's sibling team of Paul and Chris Weitz, and smartly adapted by the Weitzes and Peter Hedges from the novel by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity), the film rises above what could have been a one-note premise by eliciting well-earned emotions when we least expect it.

Grant's character, Will Freeman, is the ultimate in Slacker Chic. A hip, 38-year-old Londoner, Will does absolutely nothing resembling work because, well, he never had to -- his late dad, a one-hit wonder songwriter, penned a wildly popular Christmas ditty called "Santa's Super Sleigh," and Will's been living off the royalties ever since. In other words, Will is no work and all play: indulging in billiards, buying CDs and DVDs, and wooing and dumping women. Lots of women. Taking umbrage at John Donne's assertion that "no man is an island" (Will credits the line to Jon Bon Jovi, but never mind), he firmly believes himself to be able to wade through life alone, indulging in the occasional distraction but nothing resembling permanence in any form. ("I really am this shallow," he declares to a friend.)

Clearly, Will's tidy little life is primed for some seismic activity, and it arrives once he hits on the brilliant idea of targeting single mothers because they're more vulnerable and doubtless more open to his smooth-talking ways. This ill-advised plan eventually leads to his acquaintance with Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a 12-year-old boy with no friends, a lousy wardrobe and a suicidal hippie mom (The Sixth Sense's Toni Collette).

If you were to guess that this would be the point in the movie where Will teaches Marcus how to be cool and Marcus teaches Will how to accept and even appreciate responsibility... well, you'd be right. But what's surprising about this film is how it manages to gently push its agenda in a manner that never feels like an elbow in the ribs. About a Boy doesn't rely on a half-dozen music video montages in which we see the two boy-men bond with Aerosmith blaring in the background " it doesn't need to. Instead, the movie uses tangible, real-life situations to work the room: Marcus' discovery of his mother after a suicide attempt, puke still hanging from her mouth; Will's genuine delight at having done a charitable act for another human being for no reason other than pure goodness; and Marcus' psychologically engrained efforts to please his mother, no matter the cost to his own fragile state. Despite being surrounded by a comedy, these scenes are played honestly and without cynicism, thereby making Will's continual evolution a real joy to behold.

Because Will ultimately needs to be rewarded for his about-face, the movie drags in the character of Token Soulmate late in the game, in the form of Rachel Weisz (The Mummy) as a single mom who genuinely captures Will's affections. These sequences are the only ones that feel overly contrived, but they're beside the point anyway. The real love story at the heart of About a Boy is the one between Will and Marcus, two guys who can invoke Jon Bon Jovi by declaring to each other, "I'll Be There For You." Or was it John Donne who said that? *

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