Boys to Men

Contemporary global culture celebrates movies, the opera of our contemporary historical moment, in some surprisingly limited ways. There is much made about the technical artistry of movies, the quality of the visual effects, the acting, and the poetic sensibility of the storytelling. Additionally, critics and awards organizations recognize movies that capture a particular zeitgeist--movies that, say, reinvigorate our belief in simple, yet absorbing worlds (Star Wars), or that make us feel better about our chances to have an impact on the world (Rocky). Much less celebrated are the movies that touch our ethical sensibility, that guide our sense of how one negotiates the world's complicated, and often contradictory demands. Movies that give us these ethical touchstones are only celebrated when wrapped in an epic (Dances with Wolves) or historical (Schindler's List) sensibility.

Small, quiet movies that explore the paradoxes of a life well lived (Groundhog Day, The Fisher King) typically fall under radar, and only find their audience through word of mouth. One movie that was lucky enough to find an audience did so by disguising itself as a contemporary Brit-com in the tradition of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love, Actually. This movie, About a Boy, stars the same troubled, but charming, adultboy Hugh Grant. In this movie, the manboytagonist Will provides the narration about his lonely life of abundance. Will employs disarming banter about how he eschews complications from his relationships and structures frittering away his days (using interchangeable "units" to describe what are essentially luxurious distractions). The viewer can be very easily taken by Will's roguish disaffectedness, and is invited to do so with long looks at Will's luxury loft-style apartment, his modernist furniture, an eclectic collection of hobbies, and an even more exotic collection of girlfriends. Rather unsubtlely, Will's opulent, but empty existence gets contrasted with a rather unflattering portrait of "the boy" (Marcus, played by Nicholas Hoult) and his mother Fiona (played by the inimitable Toni Colette). Marcus, a rather awkward tween, ineffectively fends off school bullies and tries to understand why his granola-laden mother unhappily keeps trying to kill herself. Even though the audience could get backstory to understand what drives Fiona to her suicidal maudlin behavior, or why Marcus never seems to defend himself, we are denied that background. Instead, the audience is allowed the discomfort of admiring a trust-fund nothing and feeling less sorry for two characters in truly pitiable circumstances.

The reversal of charisma that arights this ethical incongruity hinges on Will's attempts to pick up on single mothers (the chant of the group SPAT, "Single Parents Alone Together!" is almost worth the price of admission alone). Will's narration on his reasoning for picking up on single parents only highlights just how emotionally parasitic he is, and just how little he actually lives up to his credo that "all men are islands." By plugging into the emotional needs of single mothers to increase his own ego, and then taking advantage of those mothers' ambivalence towards an emotional competition with a child to provide an easy exit, Will harvests the emotional void of vulnerable people. It is in this scenario that Marcus sees an opportunity to harvest Will's emotional void through blackmail. Marcus, like Will has a shaky relationship with any male figure (something that becomes abundantly clear when he volunteers to play "Killing Me Softly" during the high-school talent show using only his squeaky voice and a sad little tambourine). Unlike Will, though, Marcus is not yet resigned to always taking or buying the simularcrum of love where he can from the women in his life. Instead, Marcus still seeks authentic relationships with women, and instead enters a more capitalistic emotional exchange with boys and men (especially Will).

During the initial stumblings of their relationship, Will and Marcus attempt to steer each other toward the heteronormative and capitalistic models for different-sex relationships. Marcus tries to set Will up as a romantic partner with his mother, Fiona (at the same time Will is desperately trying to figure out how to have an honest relationship with Rachel--played by Rachel Weisz]). Meanwhile, Will is trying to buy Marcus' good graces by using a bit of his trust-fund money to buy him shoes and music. Both of these schemes to buy/force love fall flat, and Will and Marcus are both left trying to square up with people who genuinely like them, but with whom they feel like they cannot fully connect. Rachel's child (a bully) hates Will and bullies Marcus to hog his mom's energy. Fiona sees through Will's strategies, and eventually exposes his masquerades as a single father. The difficulties that Will and Marcus face creating an atmosphere of honesty and trust seem insurmountable, as both of them come from an emotionally stunted upbringing ("No. No. You've always had that wrong. I really am this shallow. ").

It's only at the moment that you think that Will and Marcus aren't going to ever make the connection that you learn about Will's and Marcus' connection to an overshadowing parent. Marcus' social suicide attempt at the talent show somewhat melodramatically folds in Will's disconnection with his now-dead songwriting father who left him a small fortune, but seemingly never helped him grow up. The solo (which eventually becomes a duet) takes the title "Killing Me Softly" rather literally. Fiona encourages a show of love that will likely seal Marcus' fate as the bottom rung on the social ladder, and Will exposes the fact that his father's "one hit wonder" musical fortune buried any chance that he would grow out of his childish need to buy affection. The song that pays Will royalties ("Santa's Super Sleigh") has really been killing Will emotionally.

Fortunately, this show of solidarity on the stage has all of the right people watching, and forges a real connection between the formerly disconnected characters. This neat tying-up of narratives avoids cliché in how it handles the resolution. Instead of re-establishing the heteronormative and capitalistic order, Will's narration takes a decidedly ethical turn in announcing that "every man is an island. I stand by that. But clearly some men are island CHAINS. Underneath, they are connected." Marcus adds to this narrative (a narrative echo to the musical duet) by building on that Robinson Crusoe-esque observation: "I used to think two was enough. But now things are great; there are loads of people... I don't know what Will was so pissed about. I don't think couples are the future. The way I see it now, we both got back-up now. It's like that thing Jon Bon Jovi said: 'No man is an island.'"

Even further, Will discovers the secret to really connecting with and loving others resides not in the one-to-one exchange that he excels in (and something that compels him to maintain the illusion of desirability, ultimately leading to the lies he constructs to maintain that illusion), but rather in accepting, supporting, and loving the people that those people love. To care about someone means you have to genuinely care about the people that someone has in their lives. Will grows by spending time with everyone in Marcus' life, by sharing who he is with everyone, and by accepting and helping those on the edges of Marcus' and Rachel's life. Marcus' and Will's shared humiliation on the stage provides the metaphor to guide their interactions with others around them. Marcus becomes visible to loved ones and possible friends for the first time and Will can finally offer something of substance because of the courageous stand they both take on the most fickle of stages.

In the end, no character changes so much as they emerge into honesty. Marcus is still awkward. Will is still struggling to grow. Fiona is still depressed. Despite these flaws, each has prospects, both in romantic love, and, more importantly in family.

1 comment:

Sport said...

This "To care about someone means you have to genuinely care about the people that someone has in their lives" is not easy for anyone. It is less easy in our culture, partially because we fetishize the individual. Spousal and family connections are lost in cult of personality. Yet, whenever we lament, "it's too bad so-and-so is married to thus-and-such, we ignore the fact that if so-and-so is wonderful and zie sees value in thus-and-such, maybe we should respect that and try to see what they see.