Whether a screen tyke hails from across the galaxy or from across town, the audience must want to adopt him nearly as much as his celluloid savior does. Nurturing instincts needn’t be ignited right away, but eventually we have to feel like giving the kid a hug and maybe even a home. That never happens in Martian Child, a tastefully tedious adaptation of David Gerrold’s short story, partly because the child is too strange and partly because, while mawkish at its core, the movie refrains from going for the emotional gut. It’s as if a NASA physicist was hired to calculate how to pull in the audience with a sentimental flight plan yet not let us feel anything too deeply.
John Cusack plays widower David, a science-fiction writer whose bestselling action-fantasy tome is set on the Red Planet and whose late wife had dreamt of adopting a kid. Two years after her death, he’s contemplating the idea of sharing his life with a rugrat. At a local orphanage, he has his eye on an anti-social boy named Dennis (Bobby Coleman) who hangs out in a cardboard box and claims to be from Mars.
Excessively problematic, the character (not the performance) is more stubbornly creepy than cute. The boy only eats Lucky Charms and insists on wearing an anti-gravity belt for fear he’ll float away. He has a wispy voice, and—due to an aversion to sunlight—wears dark sports glasses, carries a parasol and is pale from globs of sun block provided by David. Someone calls Dennis “a little Andy Warhol.” He also brings to mind a borderline autistic Michael Jackson.
Meanwhile, the narrative is running on four engines. One: Might Dennis really be an extraterrestrial? If not, what’s his deal? Either he has to end up being truly otherworldly, or we need to get inside his head so we can sympathize. Two: Assuming Dennis is a damaged human, will David lure him out of his protective fantasy shell? Can his issues be adequately addressed by living with a grieving writer and learning to appreciate the nuances of baseball?
Three: Will David finish the sequel to his bestseller? And finally, engine number four, which fails shortly into the journey since it’s so obvious: Will David hook up with his smitten friend Harlee (Amanda Peet)? Roger that. Auxiliary power is provided by Joan Cusack as (what else?) David’s married-with-children sister and Oliver Platt as his nervous agent. Anjelica Huston materializes as his book editrix.
Martian Child has intelligence and a modicum of wit—if only it had more heart and a kid worth shedding a tear for. Greater emotional turbulence, even of a hackneyed variety, might helpconvey the message that trauma can engender creativity and lead to a rewarding, nonconformist life. Being different only takes you so far in the movie world—whether you’re an alien or an abandoned little earthling.
Distributor: New Line
Cast: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Joan Cusack, Oliver Platt, Sophie Okonedo and Bobby Coleman
Director: Menno Meyjes
Screenwriters: Seth E. Bass & Jonathan Tolins
Producers: David Kirschner, Corey Sienega and Ed Elbert
Rating: PG for thematic elements and mild language
Running time: 108 min.
Release date: November 2, 2007