The Parent Trap

I saw About a Boy and Unfaithful back to back with a 102-degree temperature, so my critical perception may, I admit, have been seriously altered. I liked them both. Like I said, I was probably delirious.

Hugh Grant’s well-bred, good-genes charms have been widely noted, but the depth and range of his acting abilities have more often than not left this observer less than ecstatic. That opinion, I’m happy to say, has shifted sharply to a thumbs-up position with About a Boy .

Based on the novel by Nick Hornby, this savory vehicle provides a pleasurable role in perfect sync with the actor’s own exasperatingly upbeat personality. It comes out of the gate with a “Like me or else” challenge, and you find yourself powerless to do otherwise. With his muss-me-quick hairstyle, trendy clothes and wry arrogance, Mr. Grant is tailored for the role of Will, a rich, irresistible layabout described by all the other characters in the film as a shallow, superficial, selfish, emotionally stunted bastard. Will, you see, lives only for himself. Because his father once penned a crappy Christmas song that made a fortune, Will has never worked a day in his life. At 38, his only goal in life is to bed every bird in London who isn’t in a wheelchair. He thinks all that “No man is an island” stuff is for writers of self-help manuals. He believes he really is an island-unapproachable, self-sufficient, the terminally cool star of his own one-man show. The women in his life are just guests. No wonder he’s never had a relationship that lasted more than a month. Who could compete with his blinding sense of superstardom? So he spends his days buying CD’s, shopping for designer clothes, polishing his Audi coupe and living off the royalties of that horrible Christmas standard that was recorded by everyone from Elvis to the Muppets. The art of being single, irresponsible, careless and child-free is about to change when Will suddenly develops an unexpected relationship with a lonely, adolescent misfit. It wrecks his complacency big-time.

Through some delusional new theory developed in the search for no-strings flings, Will decides that single mums are safe bets. Battered and bruised by past experience with guys, they fear making the same mistake twice, so they give great sex, then do the dumping themselves to prove their superiority.

So he poses as a single dad with a fictitious 2-year-old and joins a support group called SPAT (Single Parents Alone Together). In the process of seducing Suzie, his first single-mom conquest (Victoria Smurfit), Will finds himself stuck with a boy named Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), the troubled 12-year-old son of Suzie’s best friend Fiona (Toni Collette). Fiona is a flaky, eccentric, overweight, vegetarian Goth who looks like Rosie O’Donnell on Thorazine. (It’s the kind of walking-accident role the versatile, offbeat Ms. Collette does perfectly, and she does not disappoint.) When Will brings Marcus home to discover Fiona unconscious after a suicide attempt, he finds himself in the unwanted role of surrogate dad to a boy he never wanted to know in the first place. Will begins to get a strange rush out of making an unhappy boy fit in with the bullies at school, and Marcus awakens in Fiona the parenting skills she lost in her own selfish misery.

No good deed goes unpunished, as the Democrats will tell you. Reshaping the kid’s life is Will’s undoing. As Marcus’ self-confidence grows, Will’s erodes. He’s made up an imaginary son to pick up girls. Now, when he finally meets the perfect girl and falls in love for the first time with Rachel (darkly alluring Rachel Weisz), she’s looking for a single dad. The film provides no easy, pat solutions for these problems, but the sometimes daffy ways in which all of the characters end up with a sense of extended family will charm and captivate you. Written and directed by the talented brothers Paul and Chris Weitz, it showcases Hugh Grant in a dazzling profusion of colors as a man dedicated to selfish pleasures-until real people intrude. It’s hard to tell the man from the boy. About a Boy is that rare gem that tugs at the heartstrings with no manipulative sentimentality. And some of it is laugh-out-loud funny, like the scene where Will decides to get his old life back and spend Christmas alone getting drunk and watching Frankenstein . On comes the scene where Boris Karloff touches the hand of the blind hermit and says, “Friend! Good!” Downright restorative, if you ask me.

Fatal Stubble

Sultry, moody and steamy enough to fog your lenses, Unfaithful is the latest soft-core exploration of cinematic sexual obsession from Adrian Lyne, the director of Fatal Attraction . The audience at the preview I attended laughed rudely. I found it flawed but fascinating, and the performance by Diane Lane nothing short of miraculous. Ripe, fearless, sexy and luminous, she’s an actress of exciting radiance. O.K., so I had a fever already. But I don’t think that’s the only reason I sweated my way through Unfaithful .

Based on La Femme Infidèle , the 1969 film by Claude Chabrol, Unfaithful casts Ms. Lane as a happy suburban mother and housewife with a loyal, loving and successful husband (Richard Gere) who lives a privileged and cloudless life until one day, after 11 years of marriage, she gets knocked off-balance on a street in Soho and crashes into the arms of a brooding, unshaven French bookseller (Olivier Martinez). It’s a windy day unlike any I’ve ever seen in New York, and she bloodies both of her knees in the fall, but still … why would a rational, well-adjusted woman climb the stairs to the scruffy apartment of a total stranger for a Band-Aid? It’s a trip that proves fatal, in more ways than one.

Aroused for no understandable reason, Mrs. Perfect keeps returning to this dusty, book-cluttered flat. There’s something about Joy of Cooking in Braille that gets her juices flowing. Pretty soon she’s doing more than admiring his collection of rare books. She brings muffins, dances a slow and sensual tango, and teases the zipper on his fly with more horny tension than good sense. Before you can say “Sharon Stone,” she’s getting French-kissed in public in full view of her husband’s business associates. Her lover draws erotic symbols on her privates with a magic marker. He screws her on the floor. He screws her standing up. He screws her in the bathroom of a neighborhood bistro while her closest gal pals are sipping coffee in the next room. He screws her in movie theaters. Since he has obviously never seen a razor blade, the damage to her skin alone is a dead giveaway that this Westchester princess is not spending her afternoons at Elizabeth Arden. How long do you figure it will take before Mr. Gere starts to notice things are going awry in John Cheever country?

The lies escalate. By the time she begins to burn the pork chops and forgets to pick up her son at school, it’s time to hire a private detective. A good woman makes a big mistake-but when she tries to rectify it, it’s too late to make amends. What happens next leads to grief, shame and a shocking act of violence that will change her life forever. Acting on a single impulse to satisfy a sexual curiosity, the excellent wife drives a wedge between herself and her excellent husband that can never be removed. The consequences of this rupture are heartbreaking. I won’t reveal Mr. Lyne’s stunning final scene, but it had a profound effect I can’t shake.

Your own responses to this troubling film will largely depend on how you view Olivier Martinez. Personally, I don’t understand the toxic sexuality allegedly oozing from the open pores of the smarmy star of Horseman on the Roof , in which he also seduced a married woman, this time played by Juliette Binoche. He is not in Richard Gere’s league; at the very least, he doesn’t deserve a peach like Diane Lane. If the fatal attraction were Hugh Jackman, I might understand her willingness to risk her future for a forbidden slam in the sack with rough trade. But Olivier Martinez has all of the appeal of day-old tuna. He doesn’t need a navel closeup, he needs a bar of Ivory.

Still, there is ballast in the expressive cinematography by the great Peter Biziou, the skillful avoidance of excessive nudity by director Lyne, and the believable, no-nonsense work of an excellent cast that includes Kate Burton, Margaret Colin, Chad Lowe, Zeljko Ivanek, Anne Pitoniak, Salem Ludwig and Erik Per Sullivan, the kid who made such an impact as the dying orphan in The Cider House Rules . The screenplay credits are shared by two distinguished veterans, Alvin Sargent ( Julia , Ordinary People ) and William Broyles Jr. ( Apollo 13 , Cast Away ). Don’t tell me this film wasn’t made and polished by pros. Ms. Lane is the centerpiece of this blues legato, but when his turn comes in the second half, Mr. Gere plays a jazzy solo of his own. Showing the pain, betrayal and desperation of a man destroyed by misplaced trust, he gives his best screen performance in years.

In the way it shows how complacency and convention can make bad things happen to decent people, this movie might tempt comparisons to In the Bedroom . That would be a mistake. It’s more simplistic, less considered, and its flaws are more obvious. Not as flashy as Mr. Lyne’s abysmal 91¼2 Weeks , Unfaithful still has an admirable style and tempo-and yet I expected more suspense from Mr. Gere’s first confrontation with his wife’s secret lover, something stronger than “How’s it goin’?”

It’s not Last Tango in Paris , but Unfaithful kept me going. For people who believe women should be kept on a short leash, it will probably have its strongest appeal. If I’m wrong, will it make the world a worse place to live? This is movie reviewing, not rocket science. The Parent Trap