This might be an example of intertextuality in the making. Or in hindsight. Also an example of how academics cannot really relax. For, I don’t know what nuclear physicists do for relaxation, but I tend to watch films, and, well, they make me think, an activity that often leads to writing papers. Or blog entries. So, here we go.

Late one night I was watching a rerun of About a Boy (2002), adapted from the novel by Nick Hornby, which is the kind of film you might call a Hugh Grant film, rather than a film directed by Paul Weitz and Chris Weitz (as it is). It’s quite charming. Grant plays himself, as usual, in a plot about a single man who happens to enjoy his idle loneliness but loves dating women. Dating leads into complications, this being a comedy, when the Grant character (Will) pretends to be a father in order to join a single mums’ support group. He intends to exploit these women’s vulnerability for his own sexual ends, but his ploy is soon exposed by the 11-year-old son of one of them. Misunderstandings follow from Will’s too many lies and he ends up, of course, paired up with a lovely single mum and surrounded by a kind of pseudo-family.

The running joke in this story is that Will needn’t work, as his dad wrote once a corny Christmas song whose rights bring in yearly enough money for Will to do nothing. In this he is diametrically opposed to workaholic Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney in Up in the Air (2009), directed by Jason Reitman from the novel by Walter Kirn. What’s the connection? Well, that’s what I noticed when I saw About a Boy the second time. Both Will and Ryan are happily minding their business, enjoying their chosen singlehood when destiny in the form of a novelist decides that this cannot be tolerated for the sake of social stability (it seems). Grant/Will is, fortunately for him, written into a romantic comedy whereas poor Clooney/Ryan is plunged into a sort of tragedy of humiliation, his lifestyle shattered by a sad affair.

Having taught many times High Fidelity, Hornby’s (lad lit) masterpiece, I had already wondered about the pressure he puts on his male characters to ‘settle down’ and be lonely no more. About a Boy does this too, as it is easy to see. Seeing again the film adaptation after seeing Up the Air, it strikes me that there is, if not exactly an inter-Atlantic conspiracy (Hornby is British, Kirn American), at least an emerging pattern to extend the fear of loneliness typical of women’s romance literature to the literature about men. Remember? Bridget Jones is scared stiff that she’ll end up her days a lonely, dotty old woman eaten by her own Alsatian (um, this always makes me think of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, which begins with a man eating his own Alsatian). The same fear is being poured onto the men.

Here’s the funny thing: Will and Ryan, the unhappy single men who don’t even know they’re unhappy when their stories begin, are played by the two most recalcitrant single men in Hollywood. Grant (born 1960) and Clooney (born 1961) seem to enjoy to the hilt their chosen singlehood, bent as they are on collecting a string of ever younger and prettier girlfriends. It’s a tribute to their acting skills that these two playboys play so well these forlorn single men, yet I’m quite annoyed at the hypocrisy of the whole act.

I wonder when our contemporary stories will focus on the choices people do make and not on the choices they should make.


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