Some works resonate in your consciousness not because you are expected to enjoy them, but from some strange constellation of human detail. When a film is made about this composer with a superb cast, first-rate director, and compelling script suggesting conspiracy, we expect nothing less than the sustained bliss of true art. When a gifted writer describes love, death, passion, betrayal, seduction, curiosity, or nostalgia, the results cannot be anything less than sublime – and if they aren't for some reason, then you will hear no fouler vitriol. Most of what we experience, however, is located well outside of this ivory prism, even for those of us for whom ora et labora represents a quaint summary of our daily work. Some will impute this plainness to the banality of existence itself; but there is another explanation. For the vast majority of us – and this is neither a rebuke nor a compliment – life tends to be a struggle for what we need or some existential puzzle involving what we might want. We are either beggars or choosers, but rarely both. In more privileged countries where all the basic necessities of society have long since been attained and surpassed, we are left with the most basic of quandaries, that of time. What does a good life mean? If you truly are free, and freedom means doing whatever you want without compromising the freedom and rights of others, what constitutes a productive day? What is the purpose of all our days, if such a chain were to be concatenated? What will a person who has everything he could possibly want do with his precious hours and minutes? How will he structure his relationship to the rest of the world? Despite its simplistic posturings, this film provides a rather fantastic answer.
Our protagonist is named, appropriately enough, Will Freeman (Hugh Grant), a double evocation of pure independence. He is thirty-something, handsome, charming, pleasingly sardonic, and sufficiently thick of wallet to eschew work's daily grind. The source of his income is even more amusing: his late father wrote one of those terrible Christmas songs that victims of temporary amnesia come to adore once a year for about a week, a fact that permits Will to afford a roomy bachelor pad in Clerkenwell. It is from this battlement that Will determines how his life will evolve. He divides existence into units, half-hour segments in which he bathes, does exercise (mostly billiards), eats at the same posh little bistro every day, rents videos and mixes cocktails (usually on high holidays), and chases whatever pretty and amenable young females greater London has to offer. When a couple that he knows wants to make him the godfather of their unborn daughter, Will suggests that this may be a bad idea since he would likely wait until she was eighteen, get her plastered, and recommend that she practice making bad late-night decisions. One may suppose that the majority of men would switch places with our Freeman in the blink of one of those long, luscious eyelashes that always seem to notice him, and a lesser film would steer us on a straight moral path to recognizing the waywardness of such a life. Yet this is precisely what does not occur. Even if Will's life is morally unjustifiable, we see it as rather fun, especially since we are along for the ride for only two hours. It's true that Will lies, cheats, and steals to get under the next skirt (even stooping so low as to pretend to be a single parent to entice single moms; why single moms suddenly enthrall him should tell you exactly why this is an unusual movie), but the effect is wickedly amusing, not appalling. And that is when a boy appears, a twelve-year-old outsider with a good heart named Marcus (Nicholas Hoult).
Marcus only has a mother, and a rather neurotic one at that (Toni Collette), who indulges him without ever teaching him right from wrong. Yet Marcus is intelligent enough to figure things out for himself. He understands that money will solve none of his problems, nor will calling attention to himself by singing his mother a serenade in his school's talent show, nor will avoiding the structure and discipline of schoolwork, although he violates each one of these truths. Unlike the staggering majority of his coevals, Marcus understands that many children have never really been children nor understood the intrinsic cruelty, insouciance, and oneupmanship that distinguish more "popular" children from their classmates. He also knows that many adults remain ensconced in these memories, times when they didn't have to care and could take advantage of the world and the meek who will inherit it. Even for someone like Will, a person who was probably more indifferent than sadistic as a teenager, the world is a facile model of predatory hedonism. Marcus and Will become fascinated with one another, but not with the mutual envy – Will of Marcus's youth and Marcus of Will's carefree adulthood – typically promoted in polar opposites in modern cinema, nor, it should be said, out of pity. No, Marcus and Will become friends because there is some odd connection that binds them together and hints at a pleasant future. Perhaps they become friends because neither one wants or needs to judge the other. Friendships of this nature normally arise from greater commonality – age, nation, employment, or belief system – but sometimes, wonderful to relate, there are other means by which humans can share their lives. Marcus may need a father and Will may need an outlet for all the responsibility he has shirked over the years, but that would be a formulaic solution to the most bizarre of problems: who should be our friends and why, which brings us back to the problem of man as an island.
Will is not only a metonym of choice – and, after all, he has every choice in the world at his fingertips. He also represents the necessity of leading a life with a purpose higher than oneself. This purpose needn't be a religion or vocation, but simply a set of rules of how life should look if you and everyone else fulfilled their potential. The idealism inherent in such an approach allows children to dream and artists to refashion, and for a few brief seconds this prophetic vision seems more attainable than the drab daubs of commercial reality we all must confront. That last observation may seem strange given the background of the author on whose book the film is based, but it is nevertheless true. At various moments throughout About a Boy we are given the option of easy popular solutions, wistful tunes that sell a million copies and yet are supposed to be portals into our very being. As much as I feel sorry for adults for whom sweet radio anthems pave the path of their best memories, children without such connections are poorer still. So when Will finally meets the woman he is destined to meet, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), another single mother, we are supposed to believe that Will Freeman shall blossom into that most famous of Wills, and his blithe attitude shall allow him to provide Rachel with something that eludes most adults, namely the sincerity to ask for what they really want. And while the original title of the film might draw your attention to Marcus, some translations (such as the Spanish Un gran chico, "a big boy") alert the viewer to another type of tale. At which point we remember that, for children, freedom means not having to become an adult.