A romantic comedy about misfits and loners, About a Boy opens with soft gags and easy mockery, then evolves into a surprisingly touching account of the tiny steps outcasts take to find happiness. Based on the novel by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity), the film successfully skates through such potentially hazardous material as a drug overdose and two separate amateur renditions of 'Killing Me Softly.' And for all its romantic gloss, the plot is realistic and credible about its characters and their foibles. A knowing, rueful script and a uniformly excellent cast will help make this accessible to a wide audience.

Will (Hugh Grant) is a textbook underachiever. Shallow, spoiled and indolent, he deflects criticism by claiming as virtues what others see as flaws. Told that he needs to find someone in his life, Will counters that he is an island, and not just any island, but Ibiza. When Will stumbles across single mothers as a foolproof source of women, he pretends to be a father himself to foster a steady supply of dates.

It's during one of these dates, a picnic for single parents, that Will meets Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), the 12-year-old son of Fiona (Toni Collette), a maladjusted hippie. When Will accidentally witnesses Fiona overdose on pills, an unwanted bond with Marcus is formed. Hounded by bullies, and haunted by his mother's fragile health, Marcus imagines the self-centered Will as an anchor, and somehow forges a relationship with him. Will meets Rachel (Rachel Weisz), a beautiful single mother whose son goes to school with Marcus, and realizes he can exploit Marcus' friendship to get to her. When his plan backfires, Will is forced to confront the emptiness of his life.

The characters in About a Boy are in some cases one step away from an emotional abyss, and the film captures the pain of their isolation in vivid and unsettling ways. Marcus' woeful outfits, most likely knit by his mother, say all you need to know about his standing at school. The humor can be sharp, even bitter, but what's especially gratifying is the film's progression from cynicism to genuine understanding and acceptance. After American Pie, one might not expect such restrained and nuanced work from directors Paul and Chris Weitz.

The script showcases a series of sharply drawn supporting characters, from Will's feckless father (Peter Roy) to Rachel's rabidly hostile son (Augustus Prew). Collette delivers another impressive performance, finding a persuasive inner logic to a distraught character. Grant is assured and convincing, even though he is called upon to re-examine the uglier aspects of his earlier playboy roles. In many ways, this is a story about humility, and more so than before, Grant seems willing to reveal his character's doubts, even at the expense of audience sympathy. It's a risky move that pays off in some of his best work in years.

--Daniel Eagan