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Bachelor Hugh Grant learns some life lessions in 'About a Boy.'

About a Life

A 38-year-old Mystikal fan is truly pathetic, according to Nick Hornby

By Gina Arnold

THE PHRASE THAT literary snobs love to intone about films made from novels--"But the book was better"--turns out to be depressingly true 99 times out of a 100. The 100th time is a film of a book by Nick Hornby. His first and best novel, High Fidelity, made a pretty good film with John Cusack. Now, About a Boy has topped that achievement--it's a very mediocre book that has become a far better movie.

Hornby is the former rock critic for the (London) Guardian and The New Yorker whose books, though not entirely about music, tend to describe a world where rock really matters. In About a Boy, Hugh Grant plays Will, a 38-year-old guy who is independently wealthy. Because he doesn't have to work, his central concerns are collecting CDs, wearing cool clothes, driving a cool car and picking up women. Presently, he meets Marcus, a miserable 12-year-old boy whose hippie-dippy mother (Toni Collette) makes him wear dorky hand-knit clothes and be a vegetarian. Will helps him make friends at school by giving him new tennis shoes, a CD player and some rap records.

That these things are transformational goes against the grain of the boy's mother, who believes that material things don't matter. Hornby's point is that material things, especially cool things, do matter, at least when you're 12. By the time you're 38, the movie implies, you should have outgrown them for deeper things, and if you haven't, you're a loser, which is why the real arc of the narrative concerns Will's growth as a human being. He goes from an extremely shallow, materialistic person to one who cares about people.

But another way of reading the text is that it is a treatise against caring too much about pop culture. Over and over again, Hornby has delivered to us characters--men--who are truly damaged because they care too much about music. Will and his forebear Rob (the record-store-owning protagonist of High Fidelity) have devoted their lives to pop music (and culture) to such a degree that they are incapable of caring about more substantive, more boring things--like kids, family and relationships.

Hornby's stories are extraordinarily wise about music. In the book version of About a Boy, the death of Kurt Cobain played a large part, but the producers of this film have left out that subplot, replacing Marcus' love of grunge with a love of rap and adding an entirely new ending. The result isn't nearly as dated as it could be. Most of the soundtrack is by the British artist Badly Drawn Boy, who plays the kind of sad-sack-sounding, Pavement-influenced indie rock that men like Will--and probably Hornby--will never not like hearing.

About a Boy makes another point about putting away childish things, which is nicely condensed into a plot dialectic between the song "Shake Ya Ass" by Mystikal and "Killing Me Softly" by Roberta Flack. The latter is Marcus' mom's favorite; the former is Marcus'. Through them, Hornby shows how every time has its own sound, and how those sounds are generation-appropriate. A 12-year-old Flack fan--or a 38-year-old Mystikal one--would be laughable.

That revelation may seem a little bit shallow, but shallow waters are what Hornby (who has also written about soccer fans) excels at exploring. That may explain why he alone of modern novelists writes good books that make better movies. Movies are by nature shallow, but About a Boy isn't. It has no sex, no violence and only the smallest amount of bad language, which puts it at odds with almost every other film currently in the theaters. Judging by the barrage of horrible trailers of movies about dead kids and superspies that I saw prior to the main event, it probably won't be a huge hit, but I would recommend it to anyone age 12 and over who has ever had a bad day at high school--or even a passing interest in seeing movies about real life.

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From the May 30-June 5, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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