By Beth Stein
A minor, harmless fable, “Martian Child” is a serio comedy about the redemptive power of love and the true meaning of family. In its good moments, this sentimental tale aims to be in the company of “About a Boy,” Hugh Grant's charming vehicle about a reluctant father, but in its bad ones, it's more in the vein of “K-Pax” and other preposterous sci-fi flicks.
The two-generational heartfelt film is made for all members of the family, a rarity in Hollywood now, but its plot machinations are so calculated that they almost defeat an honest performer like John Cusack, who always seems to rise above mediocre material. Reuniting Cusack with Menno Meyjes, his director of “Max” (also a disappointing film), “Martian Child” is about the bond between a misfit single father and a misfit lost boy.
Cusack plays David Gordon, a sci-fi writer, who as a boy grew up dreaming about aliens from outer space taking him to his real “home.” The aliens never came, but David has remained a misfit. After the tragic death of his fiance two years ago, he has lost grip of his emotional life. Nonetheless, always wanting to be a father, he decides to adopt Dennis (Bobby Coleman), a troubled orphan who, like himself as a youngster, lives in a fantasy world, believing that he is an alien.
Complications abound since its not easy for a single man to adopt. Besides, David's sister Liz (played by John's real-life sis Joan Cusack) holds that he might not be ready to handle a child.
David is about to give up when he's asked to meet Dennis, a bright but troubled kid. Abandoned at birth, and kicked out of foster homes, Dennis has hard time forming any human relationships. Living in an intense, isolated world, Dennis holds he's a Martian on a mission to Earth.
Like son, like father. When David looks at Dennis in his anti-gravity boots and special umbrella hat to shield him from Earths harmful sun, he sees himself. The beginning is rocky, but gradually the adoptive father and son begin to develop real bonds. David overlooks some of the boys odd behavior, like his unusual clothes, or putting things in plastic bags (samples of life on Earth) and storing them in his secret closet. Dennis reciprocates and begins to show David his special gifts, like controlling traffic lights or guessing which elevator is about to arrive.
Soon the outside world begins to interfere, though. Social workers make a surprise visit, and David is forced to confess to his peculiar methods, all done for the honorable intent of bringing Dennis back to reality. Overhearing this conversation, Dennis runs away, to the place where a spaceship dropped him six years earlier.
From that point on, the saga becomes utterly predictable and sentimental, too. Amanda Peet plays Harlee, a friend who helps David get parenting skills, and in the process becomes his love interest.
As a morality drama, “Martian Child” is scripted and helmed by the book. Defying school authorities and boards of orphanages, David follows dictates of his heart, insisting that every person, no matter how outsider and misfit, should first and foremost be true to himself. This lesson is particularly heavy-handed in a book party scene, in which David's agent Jeff (Oliver Platt) and publisher Mimi (Anjelica Huston, totally wasted) complain that David is not like other authors.
Scripters refrain from offering any specific diagnosis of Dennis' problem, lest they offend any segment of the potential audience. Is he autistic Delusional Just neglected and misunderstood Unoriginal as it is, “Martian Child” would have been more enjoyable, if Dennis were played by a better, more charming kid than Bobby Coleman.
Among the film's minor rewards is the opportunity to see John Cusack acting with real-life sister, Joan Cusack, who plays David's sister, bringing some needed humor; the siblings have appeared together in “High Fidelity.”
On paper, secondary cast is great, but has no real roles to play. Quite wasted, Amanda Peet, Sophie Okenedo (Oscar nominee for “Hotel Rwanda”), and Oliver Platt go through the motions of a script, credited to Seth Bass and Jonathan Tolins, in which every move seems pre-meditated.
I have not read the script, but I'm told that it's based on David Gerrold's semi-autobiographical novel, in which the father is gay, which would have made the picture more poignant and timely.
It's probably a coincidence, but “Martian Child” is the second film this season in which the great John Cusack plays a sensitive widower-father; the other being the Sundance hit, “Grace Is Gone,” which the Weinstein Company will release in December.
David – John Cusack
Harlee – Amanda Peet
Sophie – Sophie Okonedo
Jeff – Oliver Platt
Dennis – Bobby Coleman
Liz – Joan Cusack
Mimi – Anjelica Huston
MPAA Rating: PG.
Running time: 104 Minutes.
A New Line Cinema release and presentation of a David Kirschner/Corey Sienega/Ed Elbert production.
Produced by Kirschner, Sienega, Elbert. Executive producers, Toby Emmerich, Mark Kaufman, Matt Moore, Mike Drake, David Gerrold. Co-producers, Seth E. Bass, Jonathan Tolins. Directed by Menno Meyjes.
Screenplay, Seth E. Bass, Jonathan Tolins, based on the novella “The Martian Child” by David Gerrold.
Camera: Robert Yeoman.
Editor: Bruce Green.
Music: Aaron Zigman.
Production designer: Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski.
Costume designer: Michael Dennison.
Sound: Michael Williamson, Robert C. Jackson.