A re-view that juggles Hawaiian history, heteronormativity, Paul Gilroy, and Eddie Izzard. It must be another piece by Stevi Costa, this time on the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy.
About a Boy is about loneliness, but the first time I saw it, I wasn’t alone. My now-husband (and your now-site editor) and I saw this on a date. It wasn’t our first, and it obviously wouldn’t be our last. (We do still go on dates. On Monday nights. We call them “Mondates.”) But just because I’ve been part of a couple for a decade doesn’t mean that I don’t understand island living.
There are three sorts of island living highlighted in the Chris and Paul Weitz adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel: the self-imposed isolation of the aloof (Hugh Grant’s Will), the societally determined isolation of the misfit (Nicholas Hoult’s adorably weird Marcus), and the nearly inescapable and devastating isolation associated with depression (Toni Collette’s Fiona). I can’t claim I know all of these islands equally well (any sadness I’ve ever felt has been nowhere near as soul-crushing as Fiona’s), but at least two of them are very familiar to me. I was raised an only child in a neighborhood where there weren’t many children. I never thought of myself as really needing people. I was perfectly happy to, like Will, measure my day in units of time spent on various activities, rather than in my interactions with others. By necessity, I didn’t have many interactions with others. I made up little games for myself, lived in rich fantasy worlds, learned a lot of crafty things from my Mee-Maw, and read. A lot. These things, naturally, do not translate to any kind of popularity in the schoolyard. I was definitely that weird kid. Unsurprisingly, other children react to talking to yourself about as well as they do to randomly singing Roberta Flack tunes. It’s not that I needed friends, but they would have been nice to have at times. Even if you feel perfectly comfortable being an island, it is nice to know that occasionally a boat of tourists might get shipwrecked for a while.
The theme isn’t difficult to grasp, nor is it particularly difficult to relate to. We are, all of us, alone at different points in our lives. Most of us who find solace in the cinema, I wager, are familiar with the types of island living I’ve described above. Though I haven’t read this particular Hornby book, I have read a few others (High Fidelity, How to Be Good, A Long Way Down, Slam – his surprisingly well-wrought YA novel about teen pregnancy), and know that his works are all about lonely people trying to find connections with others (through music, sex, group suicide pacts, sex/parenthood). They’re sweetly poignant novels with uplifting resolutions, and they make relatively well-paced, enjoyable films with predictably enjoyable endings. It’s no surprise that, after everything, emotionally stunted man-child Will eventually learns to put a new spin on his “Every man is an island” mantra: “I stand by that. But clearly some men are island chains. Underneath, they are connected…” This was clear to me 10 years ago, but I think the idea of human relationships as island chains (that’s archipelagos for you geography nerds) is a good one to revisit now because of another film adaptation that arrives at the same metaphoric conclusion: Alexander Payne’s adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’s The Descendants.
These films are very different in their tone and subject matter, but approach the same themes through the metaphor of family-as-archipelago. Each member of the King family in Payne’s film is woefully distant from one another: eldest daughter Shailene Woodley goes to boarding school on another island; patriarch George Clooney spends so much time managing his familial estate and his law practice that he refers to himself as “the backup parent” and “the understudy” in his children’s lives; Clooney’s younger daughter Scottie seems like a misfit in her own family, not regarded by her older sister or understood by her father; and then there’s Elizabeth, the wife whose coma-inducing accident is the impetus for these other characters to come together, a woman who is so emotionally and sexually distant from her husband that she’d been carrying on a secret affair for years. I’m especially interested in the distance we as audience members feel from Elizabeth because we only know her as a comatose body in the room. (I find this intensely problematic and incredibly uncomfortable, actually, but I’ll table that for another time.) We know that she’s a part of this island chain, but she is perhaps the furthest away from us. The Ni’ihau of the film. Family is, of course, more than nuclear, and Clooney’s Matt King feels distant from his other relatives who are fighting over the potential sale of their family’s land to real estate developers. As a white Hawaiian-born man he is positioned as distant from those whose long Hawaiian lineages never involved any genes from the mainland. Even though Matt’s Hawaiian, he’s perceived as haole. As we are treated to gorgeous overhead shots of lush Hawaiian landscapes, Matt notes, “A family seems exactly like an archipelago. All part of the same whole, but still separate and alone and always drifting slowly apart.”
In The Descendants, the metaphor is a sad one about our inability to ever really connect with people, even though they are the people we should be able to connect with most easily: progeny, spouses, relatives, ancestors. These other islands, these people, may not be very far away from us physically or geographically, but there are, in fact, miles and miles of deep blue ocean separating one island from another. The film seems to also draw a connection between the family and the state, drawing an implicit critique of the problematic racial politics of Hawaii. (Yes, white Hawaiians are Hawaiian . . . but it wasn’t very long ago that they weren’t. The King family got their land because their white great-grandfather married a Hawaiian princess, as the narrative always goes.) Though the people of Hawaii, white and native, may be part of the same whole in a legal sense, they, too, are separate and alone.
About a Boy is likewise set on an island, but a less tropical one. Even though the United Kingdom and Hawaii are miles (and oceans) apart, these islands, too, are connected underneath by colonial history. It was British explorer James Cook who first reported contact with the Hawaiian islands in the late 18th century, and this colonial influence remains apparent in the Hawaiian flag, which contains a Union Jack in the upper right-hand corner. But when you are the colonizer and not the colonized, your view of island living tends to be a bit sunnier than those actually experiencing it. So the family-as-archipelago metaphor reads very differently in About a Boy, in which it’s very good to realize you are connected to other people below the surface. All men are islands, but it’s best to be part of an island chain. And in British colonial history, even islands that aren’t technically part of your island chain can be part of it, as well. (As Eddie Izzard reminds us, “Do you have a flag?”) While Matt King cannot connect to even his nuclear family because of the miles of ocean between them, About a Boy’s Will Freeman, Marcus Brewer and Fiona Brewer all learn that their families extend far beyond the nuclear: their island chains aren’t just part of the same archipelago, but extend beyond it to include friends (like punk rocker Ellie), girlfriends (like Rachel), semi-step-children (like Ali), and former co-workers from failed attempts at being charitable human beings (like the Amnesty International dude who turns up at Christmas). The unification of the major characters into a family-like unit at the end of the film reminds me of a Gene Mattingly poem that I love, “Tangent” (even though it’s about maths, which I am not very good at):
We are, all of us, alone
Though not uncommon
In our singularity.
We become tangent to
Circles of common experience,
Defining in collective tangency
Reciprocal in their subtle
Redefinition of us.
We are never less alone,
But no longer
That’s certainly very warm and fuzzy, and I feel good about the ending of About a Boy because I so badly want little Marcus to not be a loser. So the fact that he finds a chain of people who think that he’s pretty cool is a major emotional win. It’s a sweet and warm ending, like one of Fiona’s hand-knit sweaters. But there’s something about that ending, and the film in general, that I now find a little bit itchy (also like a hand-knit wool sweater). This island chain may include a lot of people, but it still reinforces the idea of the heteronormative family as the dominant social mode. The film opens with Will’s sister trying to convince him to settle down, marry, and reproduce, and Will’s dating quests with single mothers also put him in the position of replicating a missing father figure to pre-established family units. Marcus, too, wishes briefly that Will would marry his mum, and Will does end up with single mom Rachel at the end, fulfilling the role he is urged to fulfill from the beginning. His early protestations about joining a heteronormative family unit are completely erased as he joins one without any resistance. Ellie and Marcus are clearly paired as a couple at the end, and Will encourages Fiona to pursue his colleague from Amnesty International. The archipelago that they create, then, is made up of heterosexually oriented family units. There’s no space in this island chain for queerness, or for the metaphor to accept non-hetero figures as being family-oriented. To be fair to the Weitz brothers, there are some single parents at SPAT meetings who are coded as lesbian, and we see a couple we presume to be lesbian sitting together behind Suzy and Will at the park on the Dead Duck Day. So that’s nice. But those presumably lesbian characters have no lines, and are certainly not included in the Freeman-Brewer archipelago at the film’s end.
But overall, I still like this film. It remains a warm-and-fuzzy favorite, even if there are parts of it that make me a bit itchy these days. Hugh Grant is absolutely at the height of his middle-age roguish handsomeness here, which is delightful, as is the Badly Drawn Boy soundtrack. This film was the first to introduce me to BDB and I’ve been in love ever since. I actually listen to this soundtrack quite a lot. It’s great to write to, but I admit it was hard to watch this film and not sing all the lyrics to the instrumental versions of the songs. It was also hard not to say certain lines aloud during this review, as two things in particular I’ve been saying in a British accent for years around my house:
“When you sing, it brings sunshine and happiness into my heart.”
And, of course:
“I love you, Marcus.”
I really hate child actors, but Hoult’s is among the best child actor performances I’ve seen onscreen.
“What is the point to your life?” “You’re right. There’s probably no point to my life. But thank you for bringing it up.”
Toni Collette’s hair is amazing in this film.
So is Hugh Grant’s, but we know he spends 4 units of every day having it carefully disheveled, so we shouldn’t be surprised.
“It’s hard work to be wonderful all the time.” Tell me about it, Hugh Grant.
“Lorena Bobbit for Surgeon General” is a great t-shirt, but was obviously already an outdated reference in 2002.
Marcus’s rainbow sweater could easily be worn by Zooey Deschanel without any irony.
Fun fact: punk rock Ellie grows up to be Nymphadora Tonks. BAM!
Can we just talk for a second about how weird-looking Nicholas Hoult was as a kid and how TOTALLY HOT he became as an adult? Just thinking about his cable-knit sweater-clad drug dealer in A Single Man makes me a bit weak in the knees.
Wearing a chunky sweater in England makes you a hippie. Just so we’re all aware.
I really like the sequence where Marcus and Will’s friendship develops. Since Will’s life is measured in units of time, it’s especially nice that this takes place around his ritual watching of the British game show Countdown (which is awesome, and I watched heaps of it on vacation in Ireland). They’ve timed each other’s days to the point where Will can open the door before Marcus even rings the bell, which is a nice way of thinking about counting down and timing.
I had a total Paul Gilroy moment when Marcus explains rap to Ellie: “It’s by black people. They’re mostly angry, but sometimes they just want to have sex.”
Hearing someone with a British accent rap or talk about rap is absolutely hilarious to me. (And I say this as a fan of The Streets.)
The following line is the moment where I realize I am Will because I have a similar stump speech about the kind of friend I am: “You know who I am? I’m the guy who’s really good at choosing trainers or records. I can’t help you with anything real, okay?” My version is, “I’m the friend who will take you shopping or out for drinks or karaoke or something fun. But I cannot be real with you.”
I wish Sharon Needles had been around to tell Marcus that the boos he was hearing in the auditorium at the talent show was simply applause from ghosts.