Directed by Paul Weitz & Chris Weitz
Starring Hugh Grant, Toni Collette, Nicholas Hoult.Victoria Smurfit, Rachel Wesz, Nat Gastiain Tena.
Written by Nick Hornby (book), Peter Hedges, Paul Weitz & Chris Weitz (screenplay).
Music by Badly Drawn Boy
This is a very funny film in the way we’ve come to expect from romantic comedies with Hugh Grant in them. It also has common formulaic elements with the hugely popular Bridget Jones’ Diary which shares four of its producers with this film, such as the use of an idiosyncratic viewpoint through voice-over, likable protagonists who are realistically less than perfect, perhaps even not cool though struggling to maintain self-esteem and equilibrium. The wit and self-deprecating humour are also there.
Hugh Grant plays Will Lightman, a 38-year-old playboy living on the proceeds of a popular Christmas song written by his father many years before. Not needing to work for a living he has carefully cultivated a life of no responsibility, pleasure-seeking and non-involvement and thereby, he says, he has avoided depression. Paraphrasing from Hornby’s book, Will is one of life’s visitors who doesn’t want to be visited. At the beginning of the movie he is watching a TV quiz show which asks who wrote “No man is an island”. He picks Jon Bon Jovi from the multiple choice answers (in a neat example of his intentional shallowness) and then lists the ways in which he himself has perfected the art of being an island. Nicely balancing comedy and drama the rest of the movie shows how through the interaction with some eccentric and attractive individuals he comes to change his viewpoint and grow up.
Will has cultivated the persona of a cad quite well and has grown used to women abusing him verbally when he dumps them. Becoming involved with a sexy single mother who astonishes him by finding him ‘perfect’ but ending their relationship to sort things out with her ex, Will discovers a whole new area of potential romantic dalliance, as well as a new ‘nice guy’ character. To explore this character and find more single mothers he invents a two-year-old son and goes along to a single parent support group. He meets Susie, a beautiful and sympathetic single mother and through her, Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), the son of her depressed friend Fiona (Toni Collette). Opposite in most ways to Will, Marcus is one of the oldest twelve-year-old boys in the world. The voice-overs alternate between Marcus’ and Will’s feelings and observations and provide some clever comedic contrasts as well as moments of pathos and poignancy.
Marcus is a weird kid. Played affectingly by Nicholas Hoult, we know he’s the kind of intense, sensitive child who attracts bullies. His mother Fiona is a conscientious alternative lifestyler who dresses Marcus in what look like distressed second-hand clothes from the op-shop, objects to MacDonalds on principle, is vegetarian and sings Roberta Flack songs at the piano with her eyes closed. She is also severely depressed and spends much of the time in tears. She has no idea that Marcus not only has no friends, he regularly gets bullied at school because he dresses so uncoolly and, profoundly worried about his mother, unconsciously breaks into song in class. He is a constant butt of ridicule from kids and teachers alike. Life could not be worse for him until the day he refers to as Dead Duck Day, when suddenly it becomes infinitely worse.
Giving Fiona a break, Susie takes Marcus on a picnic with Will and her own young child. Marcus eyes Will suspiciously, correctly assessing that he’s there merely to get it on with Susie. He starts throwing some of Fiona’s inedible and rock-hard health bread at the ducks and accidentally kills one. Aghast at what he has done, he is even more surprised when Will easily assumes the role of Dad and smooths things over with the irate park ranger. He has a vision of a smiling Fiona standing on the path in what in retrospect is seen as an ominous portent, because when Susie and Will drop Marcus at home they discover Fiona unconscious on the living room couch, having vomited after swallowing most of a bottle of pills. Later, Marcus finds her suicide note to him.
From that day onwards Marcus’ realization that two is not enough spurs him to seek other social supports. He starts dropping round to Will’s house after school and confronts him in his lie about having a child. He sets up a date between his mother and Will with the full expectation that they will get together in an hilarious comedy scene determined by the different expectations and presuppositions each of the characters have. Will in the meantime has come to the realization that his life is empty and that shallowness is no longer satisfying. Finding to his surprise that he cares about Marcus he decides he'll help. He is stunned to realize that Fiona is the first woman he has related to with whom he has no interest in going to bed.
Will’s ability to help Marcus is in the one area in which he is an expert: being cool. Marcus is already mature in ways Will has never developed while never knowing how to be an irresponsible kid. Will knows what is trendy in music and clothes and haircuts. Each of them helps to parent the other in the best sense of the word, giving each what they need to grow up. Will teaches Marcus the essential lesson that no-one can make anyone else either happy or unhappy. There are some wonderful scenes where, having fallen in love with Rachel (Rachel Weisz), Will finds that the only thing in his life which makes him interesting is Marcus, and that his erstwhile habitual lying is counterproductive to a real relationship. Marcus also falls in love, with a girl some years older at school, the dread-locked rap-fan Ellie (Nat Gastiain Tena), who is so opposed to normal school values that she values Marcus for his eccentricity.
While dealing with some very heavy material this movie’s approach in almost every scene is determinedly light and funny. This is appropriate in that it is really about what strategies we use to survive depression and loneliness, self-doubt, bullying and suicidal loved-ones. The movie beautifully explores the “Both Sides Now” (one of Fiona’s songs) aspects of social isolation and personal responsibility in a delightful and believable way. By the end all the islands seem to have joined up into an extremely motley mainland which somehow works to support everyone.
The movie features an outstanding performance from Toni Collette who never fails to impress with her versatility and commitment to a role and very enjoyable, creditable work from Nicholas Hoult, Victoria Smurfit and Nat Gastiain Tena. Hugh Grant is likably funny and believable and his spiky trendy haircut helps a great deal in helping him avoid his usual dopey, inept Englishman role. Rachel Weisz is lovely as the girl with whom Will is finally smitten and the romance scenes are tender.
My only quibble with the film is that it severely deteriorates in plausibility where it deviates from the novel in its ending. It is far lighter than the book and leaves loose ends which make little sense. The actors themselves are also obviously uncomfortable in the final tenuousness of their character arcs. Unlike the novel, written in 1993 and dealing with grunge music, Nirvana and Kurt Cobain’s suicide, the rap music school craze, though perhaps more up-to-date, seems somewhat unconnected. I would have preferred Marcus to find his own voice in a more convincing way. Nevertheless, a highly enjoyable, fun movie.
© Avril Carruthers, 27th August 02
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