I think we can all agree that Hugh Grant has the lovestruck fool down pat. In Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Nine Months, and Love, Actually among others, he's milked the awkward Brit routine for all its worth, only occasionally switching it up to play a complete cad (American Dreamz, the Bridget Jones films). Only in 2002's About a Boy did he manage a rare balance between the two extremes, and I don't think he's given a more charming or completely fleshed-out performance to date.
Grant plays Will, an unemployed Londoner living off the royalties of his dad's hit Christmas tune ("Santa's Super Sleigh") and loving countless women before brusquely breaking it off with them. He spends his days playing pool, watching TV, shopping, content with a self-sufficient lifestyle. His friends warn him that he'll end up childless and alone; he tells them that he's keeping his fingers crossed on that front. Normally, voice-over narration is a narrative crutch, but the Oscar-nominated adaptation of Nick Hornby's delightful novel makes it perfectly, wittily clear where our protagonist is coming from: "The thing is, a person's life is like a TV show. I was the star of 'The Will Show,' and 'The Will Show' wasn't an ensemble drama. Guests came and went, but I was the regular. It came down to me and me alone."
Will's latest conquest happens to be a single mother, and while he's initially bugged by the prospect (she's late for dates when the babysitter doesn't show, he doesn't like staying off at her place with its woeful lack of technological trinkets), he's relieved to find himself the one being dumped. It allows him to end things guilt-free, this single parent thing, and so he goes on the prowl for single mums, making up an infant of his own along the way. Why isn't Ned here? Oh, his imaginary mother swung by to pick him up. Shucks.
Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a son of a friend of Will's new girlfriend, is a pouty, eccentric kid unnerved by his mom's new-found depression. When Marcus comes home to find that she's attempted suicide, Will feels awful about it. He loves driving fast behind the ambulance, mind you, but it's a terrible situation. Even with his mom back on the mend, Marcus doesn't want her to be alone, or otherwise he'll end up alone. And so, after discovering that Will does not in fact have a kid, Marcus blackmails him into dating his daft mom, hoping that he can replace his own estranged father. When that doesn't exactly pan out, Marcus settles on striking up a friendship with this perpetual bachelor and Will's heart threatens to grow three sizes for it.
Will's constantly shifting roles -- as proud lover and leaver, professional slacker and practiced loner, fake father and unlikely friend -- are always underpinned with his sarcastic sense of humor and a genuine obliviousness to why his lifestyle might seem hollow. As he puts it to others, "I'm not putting myself first because there is no one else!" For him, not meaning anything to anyone guarantees a long, depression-free life, and sure enough, it's only once Marcus and others enter his life that Will realizes how empty it is, and Grant nails his delusion, swagger, reluctance, frustration and hope as he comes to terms with the idea that he might be reliable outside of that little bubble of his after all.
"My God, what a performance!" he says after weaving his web of lies before a meeting of single mothers. Having seen Hugh Grant play merely affable and bumbling countless times before, I find myself agreeing with that particular assessment.