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November 02, 2007

Martian Child

John Cusack adopts a boy ... who just may be from Mars
Martian Child
Starring John Cusack, Bobby Coleman, Joan Cusack, Amanda Peet and Sophie Okonedo
Written by Seth E. Bass and Jonathan Tolins, based on the short story by David Gerrold
Directed by Menno Meyjes
Rated PG
Opens Nov. 2
By Ian Spelling
David Gordon's (John Cusack) wife is dead, he's way behind in writing a sequel to his most recent best-selling SF novel, and he's preoccupied with the idea of adopting a child. David's sister (Joan Cusack) thinks it'd be a mistake of epic proportions, while his pal Harlee (Peet) believes it'd do him a world of good.
Is it a comedy or a drama? Whatever it is, it's all too familiar ...
The nice lady (Okonedo) at the group home thinks she's found a perfect fit for the affable but lonely and slightly eccentric David: Dennis (Coleman), a boy who claims to be from Mars and hides in a cardboard box lest the sun's rays harm his Martian skin. David adopts Dennis, and the two get to know one another, a tentative, complicated process for each of them. David convinces Dennis to think of his house, the boy's new surroundings, as a bigger box. And he indulges Dennis' quirks.

The boy slathers on sunscreen. He hangs upside down at school and at home. He sports a weight belt. He steals other people's belongings as part of his research into Earthlings. And though David believes Dennis is just a troubled boy with a vivid imagination, Dennis does—or seems to do—a few things, such as saving David from an accident by delaying a street light, and guessing the colors of M&Ms, that force David to wonder whether there might be something to the boy's claims.

Unfortunately, the stern adoption-agency folks aren't inclined to give David as much slack as he gives Dennis, and they threaten to take Dennis away just as Dennis exhibits a willingness to live among the humans here on the big blue marble.

Martian mild
Martian Child is sweet and endearing, and truly a family film. Kids will appreciate as much as they can understand, and there's some food for thought for adults. And only a Scrooge won't shed a tear by the end. Cusack delivers a winsome performance, human and humane, as well as playful. And there's no denying the chemistry between him and Coleman—and, in different ways, with Joan Cusack and Peet, with whom he's previously appeared in Identity. Coleman thankfully doesn't overdo the odd-kid bit, and the charming Peet brings out the best in both Cusack and Coleman, despite the cliched nature of her supporting role.

All that said, Martin Child is seriously flawed. Is it a comedy or a drama? Whatever it is, it's all too familiar, with key situations explored in broad strokes. In fact, half the movie's emotional action—Dennis bonding with David's irresistibly cute dog, David romancing Harlee, etc.—must occur offscreen, as there aren't enough of such scenes for the moviegoer to invest in. And much of what is there onscreen is simplistic: David good, Social Services bad. There's the perfect house, the supportive friend, etc. Though it's fun watching John Cusack react bemusedly to Joan Cusack, her bracing, tell-it-like-it-is character is straight out of sitcom hell. A big showdown during a book launch feels contrived. And isn't there any actor other than Oliver Platt—who's fine, but he does this kind of thing every other film—who could've played the loud best friend/agent role?

But the biggest problem is that David is no longer gay. The story was about tolerance—for the boy AND the father, and that's jettisoned. In fairness to the filmmakers, they've realized Gerrold's short story, and that omitted the character's sexual preference. Gerrold made the protagonist gay only in an expanded novella version of The Martian Child, published after he himself came out of the closet, and he considers the story more about a single man trying to adopt a child than about a gay man trying to adopt a child. Still, adding that wrinkle would have lent the film much-needed dramatic heft.

Martian Child is well-acted, well-intentioned and entertaining, but it should have and could have been a better movie. —Ian