A Delicate Balance: Maintaining Laughter and Sadness in ABOUT A BOY
18 December 2011
In 2002, Paul and Chris Weitz (brothers) released their cinematic adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel About a Boy. Some of the major topics this coming of age film grapples with are suicide, depression, and bullying; yet, the film is a comedy. While there are wickedly funny moments, some obvious and many others subtle, handling the more somber moments respectfully while maintaining overall humor was clearly the film’s major challenge.
About a Boy follows, roughly, two years in the lives of Will (Hugh Grant), a wealthy bachelor, and Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a child whose mother, Fiona (Toni Collette), suffers from serious depression. Besides dealing with his mother, Marcus attends school, where he is always bullied, primarily for singing aloud during class. Will subscribes to the ideology “every man is an island,” which is actually a twist on a John Donne poem of the early 17th century in which he asserts, “No man is an island.” Nevertheless, Will enjoys the finer things in life, but isolates himself from others, spending most of his time at home (or, as he puts it, on his island). Will and Marcus’ paths cross when Will, who has just realized single mothers are the perfect women to date, begins dating Christine (Sharon Small), a single mom and close friend of Fiona. Shortly after Will and Marcus meet, Fiona tries to kill herself, leaving Marcus traumatized; he is the one who finds her near death in their flat. Fiona recovers and Marcus decides he must get his mother and Will together so Will can help Marcus care for Fiona. As Marcus forces his way into Will’s life, the two become quite close; a bond forms that both characters benefit from. Ultimately, Marcus’ master plan to get Fiona and Will together fails, but his efforts lead to a happy and satisfying ending for all the characters.
Because of the seriousness of topics addressed in About a Boy, the Weitz brothers got clever with cinematics to balance a respect for the film’s somber moments with keeping the film light, humorous, and “feel good” on the whole. One of the ways the Weitz brothers effectively relied on camerawork to maintain this balance are the “god shots” (overhead shot) used repeatedly throughout the film. The audience gets introduced to Marcus with the specific type of shot, as he lays in his bed before school one morning, and, subsequently, this same extreme high-angle shot is used on Will toward the end of the film, as he sits on his coffee table in his island (his home), alone and depressed. Both scenes are of great significance to the film and the way they are captured communicates something very specific to the audience.
With a “god shot,” which is similar to an aerial shot, the audience takes on an omniscient role; the audience is a god-like observer who is not in the moment with the characters, but instead looking down on them from above; in these cases, completely removed from Will and Marcus’ reality. “God shots” are a fantasy-type shot, meaning the angle captures a unique perspective viewers are not accustomed to looking from. Also, unlike the close-up, the “god shot” is not intimate or emotionally driven. Thus, through this shot, the directors subtly lessen the audience’s emotional investment in the characters.
Specifically looking at the scene with Will sitting on the coffee table, it is clear the “god shot” is used to lighten a dismal moment. In the scene, Will initially falls to his knees on the floor and there is a close-up shot on his devastated face. However, the camera quickly cuts from that shot, jumping instead to a “god shot” looking down on Will. The abrupt jump demonstrates how the directors let the audience in, briefly, with the close-up, but then quickly pulls viewers away. The audience observes Will in his state of depression at an arm’s length. The film can capture sadness while never becoming too sad; therefore, the film’s tone will never veer away from its comedic genre.
Beyond camera angles, there are other ways the Weitz brothers subtly utilize their visual presence to capture a somber moment while also maintaining light-heartedness and humor. For example, there is a scene where Will is walking outside in a crowd and his voice-over is describing his inner thoughts on Christmas, Marcus, and Fiona. Everyone in the large crowd is walking in one direction and Will is the only person walking the opposite way. He, of course, is either completely oblivious or un-phased that he has chosen the path of most resistance. As the audience listens to Will denounce Marcus’ invitation to spend Christmas with he and Fiona, as well as Will’s declaration that how a person spends his/her Christmas holiday speaks volumes about him/her, they cannot help but be amused at the sight of him fighting the current in a sea of people. Visually, the scene is looks like something from a Chaplin film. The Weitz brother cut several times to include various angles on the parade of people storming passed Will. Although this scene is less somber than the previously mentioned “god shot” of Will at home, it demonstrates another moment in the film when the directors undercut tension with a clever, and in this case witty, visual display.
Chris and Paul Weitz took a chance in adapting About a Boy for the screen as a (romantic) comedy. While it still offers the happy ending necessary for the genre, the film brazenly tackles grim subject matter. The Weitz brothers succeeded in this adaptation not simply because of their maintained the balance between somber and humor, but because they maintain this balance cinematically. They did not rely on dialogue, fancy sets, or beautiful costumes to bring both humor and gravity to the film; yes, those are attributes needed for film, but they are literacy and theatrical devices. The directors relied on the main tool of their medium, the camera, to communicate with the audience…how refreshing!