About a Boy (2002)

About a Boy

I’ll tell you one thing. Men are bastards.  Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) is a wealthy child-free and hedonistic thirtysomething London bachelor who, in search of available women, invents an imaginary son and starts attending single parent meetings claiming he’s been left with a two year-old son. As a result of his attraction to Suzie (Victoria Smurfit), he meets Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) a solemn twelve-year-old boy with problems at school and a suicidal hippie mother Fiona (Toni Collette). Gradually, Will and Marcus become friends and Marcus pretends to be his son so Will can pursue a relationship with single mother Rachel (Rachel Weisz).  As Will teaches Marcus how to fit in, Marcus helps Will to finally be a man ... Two people aren’t enough. You need backup. Adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel by Peter Hedges and co-directors Chris and Paul Weitz, this has all the elements of a mawkish soap but the performances and humour raise it to another level. Grant’s always been a great cad but here he also learns lessons – he already knows he doesn’t want to be a conventional husband or have responsibility but through friendship with this odd kid he learns how to be authentically emotional and to be a good guy. The fact that he’s hanging out with a twelve-year old boy leads Fiona to confront him in a restaurant where everyone immediately assumes he’s a pederast in one of the best scenes in the film. Hoult is properly strange looking (the wonder is that Will takes him shoe shopping rather than for a haircut) but the point is that both of them are outcasts in their own way and need to grow up by facing their fears – which brings the film to its penultimate scene at a school concert which presents the potential for lifelong humiliation. The songs are intrinsic to the storytelling as is customary with Hornby’s work and it’s a mosaic of cool and cringe, including the horrible Christmas song composed by Will’s father which afforded him his louche lifestyle in the first place. A film of exceptional charm. As I sat there I had a strange feeling. I was enjoying myself

Paddington 2 (2017)

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Exit bear, pursued by an actor. Paddington is now settled with the Brown family and wants to earn money for a beautiful pop-up book of London which he finds in Mr Gruber’s antiques shop as a gift for Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday. He takes a series of odd jobs which all end up more or less in chaos. When the family attend a funfair opened by thespian neighbour Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) he lets slip to the self-absorbed one about the book and nobody notices Buchanan’s interest. Paddington then disturbs a burglary at Mr Gruber’s and gets put in prison after chasing the thief and being charged himself:  the pop-up book was stolen, leaving far more ostensibly valuable items behind. The family work to get Paddington out of prison, with Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins) doing artist’s impressions of him from witness descriptions. She can’t convince Henry (Hugh Bonneville) of Buchanan’s guilt – he’s too preoccupied by his own midlife crisis. Buchanan has the book and dons a series of theatrical disguises to follow the clues around great city landmarks to an immense treasure. Meanwhile, in prison, Paddington has convinced the brutal cook Nuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) to make marmalade sandwiches and change the menu and get the prison warder to read everyone bedtime stories:  everyone is his friend … This is a fiendishly inventive and funny narrative whose winning spirit is in every frame. Grant has a whale of a time as a splendidly awful actor who now does dog food commercials (his agent Joanna Lumley explains he can only act on his own) while the Brown family’s attempts to prove Paddington’s innocence rely on each of their particular talents:  Judy (Madeleine Harris) writes her own newspaper while Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) aka J-Dog is intimately acquainted with steam trains. Mary’s in training for a cross-Channel swim which comes in amazingly handy. Fizzing with irreverent whimsy, dazzling production design, joyful exuberance, sorrow, good manners, respect and – gulp – love, this is, in the words of choreographer Craig Revel Horwood (responsible for Grant’s incredible jailhouse hoofing in the credits), Fab-U-Lous.  Adapted by Simon Farnaby and director Paul King from those unmissable books of my childhood by Michael Bond. This little bear is the best superhero ever. Just wonderful.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

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Florence Foster Jenkins was a socialite and philanthropist devoted to music. Late in life she decided the world was ready for her and recorded herself to soothe the boys in uniform fighting in WW2 and her song was such a radio hit she booked Carnegie Hall. (Because  it ain’t over till the flat lady sings.) She was a laughing stock and didn’t know it. What she heard … was not what the world heard. Husband St Clair Bayfield, a failed actor, protected her from the bad press but the final performance was a bit de trop … La Streep gives it her all as the lousy singer with a passion for potato salad and no inner critic, despite being a founder of New York’s Verdi Club and a close personal friend of Toscanini (John Kavanagh). The vocal coach (David Haig) who gets wind of her show ensures to be out of town and begs St Clair (Hugh Grant) not to credit him. The accompanist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) is simply stunned by how awful Florence is but St Clair makes him an offer he can’t refuse and he joins her each day for training:he has ambitions to be a composer so she sings his song too. His reaction shots are priceless. Then, like St Clair, he realises Florence is a good person, they have a good life, and no harm is being done. We really see Florence from his perspective. We learn slowly that Florence contracted syphilis from her philandering first husband and this laugh out loud comedy attains a touch of poignancy and humanity as we see the effects of the illness contracted on her wedding night aged 18. Florence is cared for by her Irish housekeeper Kitty (Brid Brennan, reuniting with Streep 18 years after Dancing at Lughnasa). Florence’s relationship with St Clair is strictly platonic – he keeps a mistress, Kathleen  (Rebecca Ferguson) in the apartment Florence finances and we sympathise with her situation, even as Kathleen’s artsy-fartsy boho friends mock Florence. That’s good writing, by Nicholas Martin, and if this feels a tad long, it’s still good, under Stephen Frears’ direction. The story is really all about Bayfield and Grant is exceptional in the role. There’s been a stage show (Glorious! by Peter Quilter) and a French film (Marguerite) based on the same subject and despite being shot in the UK (mainly Liverpool), this looks pretty authentic to me. But golly I wanted a plate of potato salad after seeing it! Tasty.