The rehabilitation of Hugh Grant is complete. The silly ass charmer of Four Weddings has been put to bed. It started with Bridget Jones's Diary, where he showed his nasty side. Now, as Will, a 38-year-old slacker, whose only interests are Countdown on TV and vulnerable women who might fall for his fake sympathy, he proves what a versatile actor he is. This is a performance to cherish.

Movies based on Nick Hornby novels (Fever Pitch, High Fidelity) like to use the narrative thought-process voice-over technique, which means you get to hear what the protagonist is thinking while he lays down a line of rhubarb to tempt female prey. Michael Caine was at it with Alfie in the Sixties, but things have changed since then. The cheeky chappie approach is too unsubtle for post-feminist single mums. Will invents Ned, an imaginary three-year-old, to ease his passage through the preliminaries.

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The point about Will is that he is "unreliable and emotionally stunted", as well as terminally selfish and rich enough not to work. In fact, he's never worked. He spends his days wasting time, insisting how exhausting it is. He doesn't have friends, because friends need nurturing, and admits, "I really am this shallow." How he becomes involved with Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) is a bit of a mystery.

During the phony single dad phase, when Will is chasing an Irish mum, Marcus comes along for a picnic in the park, because his mother (Toni Collette) has had a bad day. She's a manic depressive vegetarian, prone to wearing silly hats and bursting into tears. Marcus is 12, bullied at school for being "weird", and unusually accepting of life's injustices.

It would be wrong to say that the film is Will and Marcus's story, as if they bond in a surrogate dad/replacement son kind of way. Marcus starts coming round to Will's to watch TV and hang out. Will is not ecstatic about this, but since Marcus has sussed that Ned's a make-up, he can't just boot him into the street. Their friendship grows, despite Will's antagonism to anything resembling commitment and Marcus's low opinion of adult togetherness.

Hornby is incapable of cliché and, although the movie is directed by the guys responsible for American Pie, what makes About A Boy so refreshing is the surprise factor - surprisingly funny, surprisingly unsentimental, surprisingly enjoyable. The actors avoid textbook sitcom comedy styles in favour of the real thing. No one is goofing for a laugh, least of all Grant, allowing humour to filter naturally through the writing. Hoult conveys the secret eccentricities and unconventional body language of an only child to perfection and Collette has created a monster in hand-knit woollens. Rachel Weisz appears later as the love interest, uttering gut-melting put-downs, such as "The first time I met you I thought you were a bit blank."

What's nice about Will is that he doesn't pretend. Except with girls. And they don't count.

Marcus is more mature.

Reviewed on: 24 Apr 2002
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Hugh Grant, who hates kids and loves their mums, becomes friends with an odd 12-year-old boy.
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Stephen Carty *****

Director: Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz

Writer: Peter Hedges, Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz, based on the novel by Nick Hornby

Starring: Hugh Grant, Nicholas Hoult, Toni Collette, Rachel Weisz, Sharon Small, Madison Cook, Jordan Cook, Nicholas Hutchison, Ryan Speechley, Joseph Speechley, Natalia Tena

Year: 2002

Runtime: 101 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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