Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Better In Your Head?--ABOUT A BOY

1998
Nick Hornby


Spoiler Alert, "Dive" is the best Nirvana song.

London, 1993. Unemployed, melancholic dude in his mid-30s. Introverted misfit twelve year-old boy raised by a single mother. It's a coming of age story…with a twist!

Stories such as the one at the heart of About a Boy go a long way towards separating the worthwhile writers from the wasteful ones.

The adult is Will Freeman, a glib gent living well off the royalties from a holiday song his late father penned back when he still right on time. Will passes the time with pop culture, soft drugs and casual sex. Content to mind no beeswax besides his own, his relationships are ephemeral and shallow. Will scoffs at his breeder friends (and breeder strangers). If a person's life could be expressed in a single sound, his would be a non-committal one.

A case of mistaken identity leads to a date with a single mother leads to a short, mostly sweet affair that ends with Will determined to pick up as many "moms without men" as he can. After deciding to be the father of a two-year-old boy named Ned, he attends a single-parent support group. Will doesn't actually score with any of the women, but he does make the acquaintance of Fiona and her son Marcus.

Marcus is "the oldest twelve-year-old" in the world, possibly ever. His classmates find him odd, frequently throwing things in his general direction as a reminder lest he forget how weird he truly is. He hates his life and wants to make it better, but who can provide the guidance? His father's off smoking weed and falling off window ledges, and his mother's a nutter. Seriously, the toast and tomatoes are missing from her breakfast plate. She hates her life and wants to make it over.

Will is there when they find her, passed out near a puddle of her own sick, and Will is there when she's admitted to hospital. He has no interest in Marcus, or Marcus's troubled mother, but Marcus is outright obsessed with Will, or more accurately the idea that Will should date his mum and move in with his son. Of course that's a fantasy more ludicrous than most, seeing as Will has as many kids as Marcus does.  When the sneaky little shit susses out the truth, he tries to blackmail the older man.

Turns out Will has standards. He refuses to feign a romantic attraction, but will take Marcus out shopping for some sweet new trainers--which are promptly stolen the next day at school. Marcus doesn't get them back, but he has a jagged conversation with Ellie, an older punk rock girl who scares most of the other students pissless. She's been sent to the headmistress for the heinous crime of defying the dress code with a jumper bearing the face of Kurt Cobain. Marcus has no idea who that is, so naturally Ellie feeds him a pound of bologna. Luckily for Marcus, he only humiliates himself with Will, a big Nirvana fan who takes it upon himself to introduce the boy to their music (Nevermind on vinyl for Christmas, how tragically hip is that?).

Will has been unmasked as a fraud by this point, but avoids the persona non grata stamp by dint of his fraught connection to Will. It's more brotherly than father-son, but it's something and both of them clearly are need of something.

Then, as three becomes four, Will falls in love. Plunges head over heels for a folksy children's book illustrator named Rachel. Who just happens to be the unattached mother of a young boy. Will's bad off in short order; the silly tendencies of mankind (marriage, monogamy, parenthood), the daft practises he'd fancied himself above and beyond, have suddenly become quite appealing.

Marcus thinks he might be falling in love with Ellie, which means he isn't, but he doesn't realize it until she tags along on a train trip to visit his father. It's the same day that Kurt Cobain's body was found. Ellie has brought along a bottle of vodka to squash the hurt and start some shit. I don't know--being American--if Royston is a primo spot to set it off, but it's where Ellie sees a cardboard cutout of Cobain in the front window of a record shop. She smashes the glass with a boot and "rescues" her beloved Kurt from the avaricious assholes. Both she and Marcus are arrested, which provides the perfect excuse for virtually every significant character in the novel to converge in a police station.

Neither "boy"--and there's the twist--could have foreseen what would happen when Will decided to prey on an especially desperate subset of the female gender. By the end, Will begins acting like an adult, and Marcus starts acting like a kid.

The quality of the story, again, is heavily dependent on the quality of the teller. Nick Hornby is an exceptionally witty prose stylist, bridging the first and last words of his sentences with admirable confidence and skill. His dialogue is especially excellent, mixing insight with infelicity. Despite the tendency of nearly everyone involved to overthink every situation, About a Boy is all heart.



2002
Director-Chris Weitz & Paul Weitz
Writer-Peter Hedges, Chris Weitz & Paul Weitz


Yes, the American Pie guys.

Childish, yet true: at least once in life, you will look at someone and instantly think, "Piss off." Perhaps it's a person you will get to know better over time, and perhaps your impression of them changes. Increased exposure does not guarantee the development of a different opinion, though. Certain people will always, and only, inspire those two crudely dismissive words.

For me, Hugh Grant is one of those people. I do not love him, I do not hate him, I do not love to hate him, I do not hate to love him. Each and every time I see his name and/or his face, my response is automatic, profane and disdainful.

Watching About a Boy proved about impossible.

The skeleton of Hornby's story is intact. Flesh and blood gone, organs as well, probably earmarked for future pranks, but anyone who read the novel will recognize the first half of the movie. Grant plays Will, the wise-ass who's managed to avoid catching a legendary beatdown at some point in life through sheer charm and cowardice.

Sigh.

Hugh Grant by himself makes such luck seems all the more improbable. Reading the book, I pictured Will as a fit fella with handsome square face, dark hair brushed back with a side part, eyes forest green and boyishly wide. Hugh Grant has an oval face, blue eyes and for the role replaced his trademark floppy locks with spikes. Dude looks like the spawn of Roger Daltrey and a bowling shoe (not even a pair of them, just the one shoe).

The action, such as it is, no longer takes place in the 1990s. That would have been fine--if the filmmakers hadn't squared the circle.

Hugh Grant voice-over? Okay. One voice-over is fine. Or rather, it has the potential to be fine. It also has the potential to make me run around the house looking for some lime juice to mix in with the liquid detergent (because if death is going to be anything other than inevitable, it might as well be tasty). But I get it! Hornby's prose is so lively and comical the temptation to jack it for a script proved irresistible.

Two voice-overs, however, is unacceptable. Especially when it's a kid speaking. What in the hopping crap were the Weitz brothers thinking? The synthesis of tepid personalities and awkward situations that define the hum-drum rom-com had no place near this story. Yes the uncomfortable moments abound in the text, but the people weren't cardboard cutouts (well, bar the actual Cobain cardboard cutout), they were honestly delineated, not walking quirks serving merely to herald plot twists.

As crap as the dual VO's are (and they are oh-so crap), changing the last act is a sin punishable by forever being best known for co-directing American Pie despite later co-writing Rogue One. Will and Rachel break up after he confesses he doesn't have a kid? WHAT? Marcus decides to cheer up his mum by singing at his school's talent show. IN? Will implores Marcus's mum to stay alive for her boy. THE HELL? Together, they attend the talent show, where Marcus performs a shrill, tuneless cover of "Killing Me Softly With His Song." IS THIS? Will joins him onstage, guitar in hand, in an attempt to salvage the wacky situation! Well, gets him back together with Rachel at any rate! RESULT??

In an attempt to cute up the story, the Weitz bros stripped About a Boy of the brutal honesty that was its most endearing quality. Of course the money rolled right in at the box office. Reeking of feculence is no impediment to profit, after all.

No lie…this is the worst movie I've reviewed for this series thus far. The Choirboys is In the Heat of the Night compared to this blisteringly unfunny garbage. Well done!

(I used to enjoy my steaks well done, which was dandy within the home confines. Then I started eating out. Everyone everywhere--waiters, friends, dates, hibachi chefs--kept informing me I was wrong to want my steak prepared such a way, until I finally threw up my hands and said, "Fine! Medium rare, you whores!")

Three people to write this claptrap…this Oscar-nominated claptrap. A pitiable effort worth approximately 0.8 seconds of your time.

BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Of course it's better in my head! I do not care about Will's happiness in the movie, since I don't care about the man-whore portraying him. Book Will was a funny prick. I rooted for him on his journey from neutral observer to invested participant, even as I suspected my fandom would prove foolhardy.

First impressions are huge. Readers are introduced to Will in the midst of taking a men's magazine questionnaire to determine his total number of "cool" points. Movie viewers' first glimpse is of some smug slug watching Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?

Marcus goes from being a fan of one specific band to a fan of an entire genre. Considering the novel's title is a play on one of Nirvana's best songs, I can only chuckle. Surely the producers feared dating their film? Or perhaps its easier for a written work to integrate a real-life celebrity figure without seeming cheap or exploitative.

The connection that two troubled youths made to an unconventional rock star imbues the narrative with soul, and provides a connection to the real world. Kirk O'Bane was never a footballer for Man U., but Kurt Cobain was a musician who defined an epoch for millions worldwide. Reading about his face on a sweater is different from seeing it. The reader can make their own internal adjustments and determine their own comfort level.

No surprise that the author of High Fidelity would treat the reaction of two fictional kids to the unexpected death of a "real" musician with such compassion. It's just additional evidence that life is unfair, and that the world does not spin for the benefit of middle-class misfits.

No surprise that the producers would jettison any mention of Nirvana altogether. They did not want to make a "Nirvana movie," or even more horrifying, "a rom-com from the grunge era." The entire project would have been granted a gravitas it didn't deserve. Op-ed madness would have ensued. Courtney Love interviews with every major news outlet. Accusations of using a dead man for profit would dog everyone involved, with Ellies worldwide ready to take boot to glass.

While I adore the book for going there, the movie had no choice.

That very same author loved the film's ending, you say? Allow me to evoke the "Vaseline on toast" argument.

In the book, confabulatory confusion leads to Rachel assuming that Marcus is Will's son. Rather than tell the truth straight away, Will milks the lie. So far, so good god man what are you thinking? In time, though, Will realizes he shouldn't pull the wool with the woman he's intent on making a life with, so he comes clean. Rachel waits until he finishes with the world's chewiest spring roll before reacting. She's understandably upset at the deception, admitting that the belief he was also a single parent spurred her interest in him, but she manages to crack a joke…and they move on, together. In the film, they break up at a restaurant. (So long, and thanks for all the cliche.)

Nicholas Hoult was cast in the key role of Marcus…dreadful decision. The boy's struggle to establish emotional equilibrium so's his teenage years can go smoother than his face will (probably; trust me, boss musical taste does not prevent breakouts) is the apparent bonfire around which the other characters perform their graceless dances, and it's vital that he ingratiate himself with the audience. It's crucial that I care what happens. I should feel strongly that this boy deserves love and affection, that he should be treated as more than just another body in a flat, another set of grades. And I just do not give even a sneeze-induced trickle about that kid on the screen.

The police station gathering would have been gold on that screen, baby.

Explaining what's unfolding onscreen is aluminum, buddy.

Nothing in the world beats a great book.

MIND THE GAP
I take issue with the idea that rebuking the music of Joni Mitchell is a surefire sign of an improving state of mind. At least, I think I take issue.
        From her 1968 debut to 1974's Court and Spark, R. J. Anderson put out six albums of high artistic value. The Hissing of Summer Lawns in 1975 petered out midway through, but Heijira and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter each represented if not a return to form, a return to consistently listenable music. Then, in 1979, Mingus happened. Nine more albums followed, none of them notable beyond the name on the cover. That's eight good albums out of nineteen, and none over the final twenty-eight years of her recording career. Makes for a pretty sloppy legend. (Even Bob and Lou tripped on half dollars in the Eighties.)

I laughed exactly one time. Thank you, "Shake Ya Ass."

How could a mother love her child behind? How could a father? Nothing bothered me more about the Cobain suicide, and twenty-three years later, my feelings haven't changed. That's the dreadful power of depression, isn't it? It enervates. It drains. It convinces otherwise. It hits the chest like a chop from Andre Roussimoff.

What does Will actually do for Marcus, other than encourage him to listen to the same music as everyone else, to wear the same clothes as everyone else? Teach him the definition of sarcasm? A trendy boy is a safe boy, and a safe boy means the story is over.

The intrigue resides in Will's development. At worst a predator, at best a pretender, he's not a murderer or a rapist, but he is an embezzler of emotions. No one on Earth is irredeemable, though; they just run out of time. If you believe that statement, Will's redemption via the friendship of an unwary boy and the love of a forthright woman is conceivable. "Existence precedes essence" is the claim around which the existentialist philosophy totters. At any time a person can consciously change their behavior, and thus their essence. Will thought he knew the secret to a happy life, and lived accordingly: blithe, smug and cynical. Then, significant changes occurred in his life that demanded action. A sweeter, more empathetic Will Freeman eventually emerged. One that doesn't wonder why a woman fresh off a suicide attempt doesn't make more of an effort to appear attractive. One that will persist as long as he allows.

94%. There's a reason I used to hurl rotten tomatoes from my parents garden across the street into a vacant lot.

Biscuits are cookies. The "s" at the end of "Arkansas" is silent, but not the one at the end of "Kansas." The United Kingdom and the United States each have the leader they deserve.

Finally, don't feed ducks biscuits, or cookies, or bread, or anything other than duck feed. And don't throw it at their heads.

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