"Charming oasis in the blockbuster desert"
Dir. Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz; writ. Nick Hornby (novel), Peter Hedges, Weitz & Weitz; feat. Hugh Grant, Nicholas Hoult, Toni Collette, Rachel Weisz (PG-13)
A recent tribute to the late, great filmmaker Billy Wilder quoted him as saying, "good sentimentality is good, clean, honest ... with no tin cup rattling around." So few films out there today can live up to this standard — of presenting their "heart-warming" or "uplifting" tales without looking like panhandlers, asking you to give your heart away for very little in return.
Which is one of many reasons that About a Boy, a story about a man-child who grows up, is so delightful. Hugh Grant, as tabloid exploits and Bridget Jones' Diary have taught us, is great at playing the cad. This film presents him as neither wanting nor really deserving our sympathy; he's simply an object of amusement, and as such he's a complete success. Using generous chunks of Nick Hornby's text as narration, Grant describes the irresponsible joys of floating through adulthood without attachments; at the same time, we hear from a teenaged misfit who's badly in need of some stable people in his life.
Plenty of films start with a cynically amusing protagonist only to put him or her through a meat grinder of pathos in order to teach us a lesson. But there's something very natural and un-salesmanlike about the way Grant comes to believe that other people merit his emotional involvement, and the transition doesn't come (as it generally does) at the expense of his character's wit. Hornby's previous novel/film, High Fidelity, centered on a similar piece of character development, but didn't quite make it work; the record store material was so fun that any diversion into serious relationship drama felt like it was robbing precious screen time. Not so here.
The Weitz brothers, who did the seemingly impossible by lending real human warmth to the scatological American Pie, again show a flair for pacing and balance. The film zips along with a camera and editing style as breezy as Hornby's writing, and the pair employ the soundtrack (original songs composed by Badly Drawn Boy) beautifully; the music contributes as much to the film's tone as the production design or cinematography.
As the film's stories find themselves in need of resolution, a couple of small cliches seem inevitable. But by this point, the film has earned so much goodwill that it's hard to judge them harshly, and the Weitzes do put a fresh spin on even the most standard climactic device. As I walked out of the theater at an advance screening, I heard a woman say "I'd go back and watch that again right now"; despite the fact that I spend way too much time in movie theaters, I kind of agreed. As the English are so fond of saying: Brilliant. — John DeFore
The New Guy
"Barely repackaged high school comedy"
Dir. Ed Decter; writ. David Kendall; feat. DJ Qualls, Lyle Lovett, Eddie Griffin, Eliza Dushku, Zooey Deschanel, Parry Shen, Laura Clifton (PG-13) Who's got the funk? Not Dizzy Harrison (DJ Qualls), although he wants it something awful. He's a blip, a nothing, happy not to get stuffed into his locker, and doomed only to exist in the eyes of other blips. Or is he?
Dizzy meets Luther (Eddie Griffin), a criminal who sees parallels between prison and high school nerd-dom. Luther takes Dizzy on as a protégé and the recreation begins.
Expect typical high-school movie wackiness, like Dizzy videotaping the principal taking a crap. Mixed in are watery cameos by Gene Simmons, Vanilla Ice, and Henry Rollins, and some god-awful (too many, too long) movie references, such as the impromptu Patton pep talk on the football field and the climactic Braveheart final conflict (Ouch!).
DJ Qualls does possess some charm, but not the chutzpah to make the forced humor float, and Eddie Griffin marks the points above water. There is just not enough of his freaky-funny presence to keep you interested. Yet somehow, a small stroke of genius is hidden inside a mask of seen-this-before. Lyle Lovett plays Bear Harrison, Dizzy's dad, and he's really bad, in a good way.
The New Guy is just another pathetic and weak skinny-white boy-searching-for-soul flick that you can squeeze a few hearty laughs out of, but nicely equipped with a triple-whip-it-all-night, funk-it-to-the-floor, out-the-door sound track that'll have you dancing down the aisle during all the film's built-in opportunities to get a frozen Coke, popcorn with butter, napkins, Raisinettes, Jujubes, a toothpick, more napkins. — Anita Schmaltz