- Rated PG
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All photos © New Line Cinema
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
f there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching John Cusack movies, it’s that sister Joan will never have to look for work again. The actor’s latest film, “Martian Child,” marks the ninth onscreen pairing of the brother-sister duo, with a tenth (“War, Inc.”) scheduled for release in 2008. This isn’t meant to take anything away from Joan’s own career, but I’ve always found it interesting to watch real-life siblings play those roles – especially when the film itself is centered around the theme of family. That’s certainly one of many themes of “Martian Child,” a film best described as a more eccentric take on the same formula that made Chris and Paul Weitz’ “About a Boy” such a charming little film. “Martian Child” aims to replicate the experience by delivering a much-needed break from the wave of somber Oscar contenders with a story that seeks only to entertain.
The film stars John Cusack as David Gordon, a successful sci-fi writer at the top of his game. After the death of his fiancée two years prior, David is looking to fill the emotional void in his life by adopting a child, but when he’s called by the local foster home to come meet 6-year-old Dennis (Bobby Coleman), he’s still hesitant about making such a life-changing decision. After meeting him, though, David immediately becomes smitten with the awkward young boy. Spending most of the day underneath a cardboard box (admittedly because he’s afraid of the sun) and wearing a “weight belt” made out of batteries to counteract his gravitational pull from the planet, Dennis also believes that he’s from Mars. The pair seems a match made in heaven… or at least deep space. After all, if a sci-fi writer can’t wrangle the young boy’s imagination, who could? But the relationship proves more difficult than first imagined, and while David spends his days convincing social workers of his capabilities as a single father, and his nights teaching Dennis how to be more “human,” he’s forced to ask himself: could the kid really be a Martian?
There’s an obvious answer to this question, but the idea that it might be true lends a certain magical quality to the film. This isn’t “K-Pax 2,” however, and instead of spending too much time debating whether or not Dennis really is from Mars, the film instead focuses on the relationship between man and boy, father and son, and in the words of Cusack’s character, “creature and alien.” Unfortunately, it’s a little difficult to discredit the possibility that Dennis really is from Mars when the director allows for so many coincidences throughout the course of the film. Case in point: there’s an entire sequence where Dennis is trying to convince David of his special Martian abilities by making trivial (yet somewhat extraordinary) things happen, including a home run at a baseball game, manipulating traffic lights, and tasting the color of M&Ms. They can all be easily written off as sheer coincidence (the home run was inevitable, the traffic lights turned green on their own, and he was peeking at the M&Ms), but why string together so many in a row when it’s not true?
It’s certainly an argument worth making, because as much as I didn’t want Dennis to wind up being a Martian in the end, it almost feels necessary because of the way the audience is led on. That doesn’t make “Martian Child” a necessarily bad film – just not quite as good as it could have been. John Cusack delivers yet another charming performance as the film’s lead (once again cementing his place as one of the most underrated actors in the business), while young Bobby Coleman more than makes up for the fact that he’s really not that cute with a soft, scratchy voice guaranteed to melt your heart.
Unfortunately, the supporting cast (which includes Joan Cusack, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt and Anjelica Huston) is left for dead with roles better suited for less talented actors, while the film’s hidden message about the importance of adoption is a bit heavy handed. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find a purer theatrical experience than “Martian Child” all year long, and while it’s far from perfect, it’s nice to know that even Hollywood is willing to go against the grain every once and while.