It could have been cute to the point of cringing. Will (Hugh Grant) is a London bachelor supported by a trust fund from his songwriter dad. Will seduces single moms (because it’s easier) and dumps them without a twinge, until a twelve-year-old misfit, Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), teaches him that life can have meaning. Don’t despair. Grant, with his hair spiked and a wit to match, is in the bastard mode of his role in Bridget Jones’s Diary. He’s replaced the stammering charm with something tighter, meaner, more self-absorbed. It’s a smart move. The acid comedy of Grant’s performance carries the film.
It helps also that newcomer Hoult is that rare child actor who mercifully underplays the pathos of his role. Marcus is bullied at school, his hippie mom, Fiona (Toni Collette), is suicidal, and Will makes him pretend to be his son so he can prove his parental worth to his latest single-mom target, Rachel (the excellent Rachel Weisz).
Will’s redemption has an assembly-line feel that the 1998 novel by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) astutely avoided. And in updating the film from the novel’s early-Nineties time frame, with its references to Nirvana and the death of Kurt Cobain, directors Chris and Paul Weitz — they did the funny American Pie, not the fatuous sequel — lose some edge. No matter. Grant gives this pleasing heartbreaker the touch of gravity it needs.