Nick Hornby is a better novelist than he is a music critic, which admittedly isn’t saying much, but his books do hold some artifactual interest as fastidious summaries of the unexamined life. His professional solipsists are plugged into popular culture but utterly detached from actual people; that neither Hornby nor his protagonists seem to notice or mind the disengagement only adds accidental frisson. The author can convincingly represent interior drift: Stuck in an emergency ward with the young son of a woman who has just tried to kill herself, About a Boy‘s Will Freeman finds himself “absorbed almost to the point of enjoyment” in the drama, and the book’s smug breeziness momentarily becomes an Adorno-like chill. You’d be hard pressed, however, to find any credible affinity between two human beings in Hornby’s fiction—even About a Boy, in which the two primary concerns take the form of only-connect conundrums: the pitfalls of serial dating and the unlikely accord between an inertly wealthy bachelor and a pubescent loner dork.
American Pie directors Paul and Chris Weitz are remarkably faithful to the text in their film adaptation, lifting entire pages of dialogue along with the novel’s rigid high-concept tidiness (Will has no friends; the credits list no fewer than four actresses as simply “Bitter Ex-Girlfriend”), self-satisfied pop referencing, and blithe sociopathy. Will (Hugh Grant), a London bounder with an inheritance, enjoys a commitment-free fling with a divorced parent and suspects he’s stumbled on a mother lode. He fabricates a toddler and a desertion sob story to join an estrogen-dominated support group called SPAT, for “Single Parents—Alone Together.” (The creep quotient hasn’t reached such queasy heights in a cine-romance since rehabbing lout Ben Affleck hoodwinked grieving widow Gwyneth Paltrow in Bounce.) A SPAT picnic introduces Will to Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a stoic 12-year-old equally bewildered by his bullying classmates and clinically depressed solo mum, Fiona (Toni Collette). Marcus catches on to Will’s dissimulation in no time, which gives the lad leverage to conscript him as de facto baby-sitter and fount of disposable income. Soon he’s posing (rather pointlessly) as Will’s son to help earn the affections of sultry Rachel (Rachel Weisz).
Since the central odd couple have no rapport, their bond never seems to progress past mutual usury—a weary-looking Grant has played the affably predatory cad too often (most recently in Bridget Jones’s Diary), and Hoult recites his darndest things in uncomprehending singsong. Collette, meanwhile, does her best to anthropomorphize her daffy duck, who mostly quacks and blubbers. The book, set in 1993 and ’94, invokes Kurt Cobain’s descent with Fiona’s suicide attempt and unresolved despair; the title summons Nirvana’s raw-silk ballad “About a Girl.” (The movie’s cream-puff chamber pop is provided by Badly Drawn Boy’s Damon Gough.) The Weitzes dispense with the original Cobain-haunted happy ending, opting for an improbable onstage redemption via “Killing Me Softly With His Song”—a sentimental inversion of an episode of Mike Judge’s comic-humanist landmark King of the Hill. (Newly empowered as a plus-size model, young Bobby is about to make his mall-catwalk debut when Dad drags him kicking and screaming from the scene, but the kid’s dream deferred turns out to be a disaster averted.) There’s something either mean or stupid about the triumph About a Boy finally contrives for Marcus: A film that takes hormonal grown-up deceit so magnanimously for granted shouldn’t be so willfully naive about the unrelenting cruelty of children.
The sadism of adolescent boys is dispassionately chronicled in the hour-long documentary Standing by Yourself (at the Pioneer), a highlight of the recent New York Underground Film Festival. Director Josh Koury, himself a teenager when the movie was made in his upstate New York hometown, trains his camcorder on the fraying friendship between wry, bookish Adam (Josh’s younger brother) and obnoxious punk poseur Siegfried, a budding white supremacist who ceaselessly hounds his mother for money. These restless high schoolers seem to have little in common except their propensity to troll for highs—in their parents’ pill stashes and the local drugstore’s cough-medicine aisle. A crystalline curio of dumbshit nihilism shot through with fleeting pathos, Koury’s home movie often evokes The Decline of Western Civilization Part III.