ong live the dot-com era! We had a dream: Limitless wealth without the sordid, anxious exertion and old-fashioned struggle of uncertain attempts and inevitable failures. To move from your parents’ basement to Malibu’s beaches with one eruption of your Unix-induced verbosity. Just pick an existing business idea from a hat (who cares if it was successful), throw together a PowerPoint presentation with a loose online adaptation, convince a few greedy and ignorant bankers to buy into your business plan, and sell your ownership share as soon as possible.
It’s that essential last step that proved to be the downfall for not a few people who now find themselves laid off, sitting on the couch all day, dreaming about what could have been. And just what could have been? We can now thank Nick Hornby (and Hollywood) for showing us that dream through the character of Will Lightman, the last hero of the dot-com era.
In About a Boy, Will (Hugh Grant) portrays the brass-ring lifestyle that many laid-off tech professionals pine for. Many of these technically minded dot-com hopefuls grew up in front of a computer screen, playing video games, chatting online, hacking into unfriendly systems, and dreaming of a world where they could play video games, chat online, and hack into unfriendly systems until they passed on.
Until 1995, the year of Netscape’s IPO, this dream had to be subjugated, replaced with the drudgery of an Office Space–type job at some mind-numbingly dull corporation. But once the imagined possibilities of the Internet captured the investing world, a door opened through which those previously uninspired Neo wanna-bes could saunter to their childish heaven-on-earth. In the dot-com world, there would be little struggle, little exertion, just near-guaranteed monetary success. They knew the winning numbers before the draw.
In Will’s world, dot-com ownership takes the form of inherited perpetual royalties to a holiday theme song played nonstop for a few days every year on just about every radio station in the country. Not much exertion or struggle, and guaranteed monetary success. Thanks, Dad.
The book and film title’s figurative meaning refers to Will’s lingering childish manner. Much like the underlying promise of dot-com success, the copyrights Will owns guarantee him the ability to avoid adulthood. Both forms of childishness are almost Seinfeldian. About a Boy is essentially about nothing—the nothing of an uneventful life and the nothing that comprised many dot-com business proposals. The movie shows it forth when Will is frequently asked, “What do you do?” He responds every time with confidence and pride: “Nothing.” His is the same confidence and pride every dot-commer had in their pursuit of the quick cash that would guarantee their lasting childhood.
As Will spends much of his time watching TV, ensuring that his hair is in the perfect salon tousle, and conceiving new ways to meet his next casual fling, we see him nearly as Kramer’s twin. Moreover, he is almost an echo of George’s memorable attitude when George explains to Jerry his idea for their television show: “Everybody’s doing something; we’ll do nothing.” Will seems nearly to elevate doing nothing to a celestial level; he is just that good at it. He becomes the Sun-Tzu of Nothing—or maybe just the creator of theglobe.com.
Just as Sun-Tzu based all warfare on deception, and most dot-com business proposals were sold to investors with the help of deception, Will bases much of his “nothing” life on deception. The title’s literal meaning refers to a boy that Will fakes as his own to help him gain the adoration of unsuspecting potential girlfriends. This deception works particularly well for him when he meets the woman who gives him reason to join the adult world.
But before Will can join us, he must do what many failed dot-commers now—as they sit at home, out of work, wondering how they will make their next rent payment—have the opportunity to do. Will must confront himself. In his case, he must recognize how his father’s song has succeeded in oppressing his spirit by enabling his “nothing” lifestyle—and more importantly, how he has willingly allowed it. Only after Will stops acquiescing to his own oppression does he begin to find resolution and redemption.
Jerry Seinfeld reaches a similar point of self-realization and potential transformation in one episode. After contemplating the problems he and George have with women because of their “nothing” lifestyles, he exclaims to George, “What kind of lives are these? We’re like children. We’re not men.”
Will’s transformation begins as we see him wandering the aisles of a supermarket, haunted by the vision of his father while the song plays over the store’s Muzak. He has begun to raise the curtains and face the reality of his “nothing” lifestyle. The scene of Will’s ultimate resolution and redemption plays out in his apartment, as we see him—almost in a trance—slowly queuing up the song that has both provided his wealth and been the curse of his existence. As it plays, Will breaks down into a despairing heap as he realizes that the song allowed an absence of struggle and exertion and a consequent devotion to his juvenile impulses that sentenced his spirit to a life of nothing.
Perhaps some laid-off dot-commers, with About a Boy’s dream of what could have been fading along with their dreams of instant wealth, will now instead struggle toward their own awakening.
Jeff Resnick was laid off from an investment banking job almost a year before this interpretation was written. He has a lot of spare time and often dips into that “strange feeling of freedom” to watch and read about movies.