Knockout performances by John Cusack and child actor Bobby Coleman help legitimize a whimsical but sententiously moralizing script about the wonders of parenting in helmer Menno Meyjes’ “Martian Child.” Soppy tale of a widower who adopts a kid who believes he’s from Mars is transformed, through thesps’ intensity, into a nicely weird, often engrossing two-hander, though no one else in the excellent cast fares as well. Since the two lead actors are almost constantly onscreen, “Martian Child” only occasionally thuds to Earth. Opening wide Nov. 2, the New Line release could find a cozy holiday niche.
David (Cusack), a successful sci-fi author still grieving for his wife two years after her death, considers adopting Dennis (Coleman), an orphan who spends most of his time in a cardboard box since, being Martian, he fears exposure to the sun. Gradually winning the boy’s trust through gifts of sunglasses and sunblock, David takes Dennis into his house on a trial basis.
Sister Liz (Joan Cusack, injecting a much-needed sense of comic harassment into her thankless straight-sis part) feels David might not be ready to handle a child — especially one who wears a weight belt so as not to float away, and steals others’ belongings to collect data for future Martian study.
David bonds with Dennis through baseball games and a shared state of alienation, David himself having sought refuge in fantasy worlds as a child and even now as a professional adult imagineer. He’s supported in his tentative parenting techniques by gorgeous friend Harlee (Amanda Peet), who inevitably morphs into a romantic interest as the film progresses.
School officials, orphanage boards and conventional wisdom, however, insist David’s role as parent is to socialize the kid, not join him in his fantasies. Such is the conformity-vs.-self-expression axis the film drives home with a sledgehammer.
Scribes Seth E. Bass and Jonathan Tolins have adapted sci-fier David Gerrold’s semi-autobiographical novella, reiterating and underscoring every truism ad nauseum. During the pic’s many heavy-handed learning experiences, auds may find themselves counting the number of ways protags are exhorted to “be themselves.”
Helmer Meyjes effortlessly enables the satisfyingly idiosyncratic exchanges between Cusack and Coleman, including a nifty Martian line dance, but turns clueless when dealing with the script’s more egregious epiphanies. Meyjes skirts outright parody at David’s book-launch party, where his publisher (Anjelica Huston) and agent (Oliver Platt) plaintively ask him why he can’t just be what they want him to be.
Lacking the built-in poignancy of Cusack’s other recent troubled-parent turn in “Grace Is Gone,” “Martian Child” gathers all the accoutrements of the perfect family (beautiful, understanding girlfriend, adoring golden retriever) to offset a child’s belief in an alternate universe from which he has been expelled. Coleman, his face gleaming palely under layers of sunblock, is genuinely offbeat enough to have auds wondering, along with Cusack, whether the kid actually arrived from another planet, yet also achingly vulnerable and perceptive enough to overcome the script’s facile schmaltz.
Those seeking originality, subtlety or even serious parenting tips should look elsewhere (improbably, the word “autistic” is never uttered, even to deny the possibility that Dennis might be). But pic should satisfy those seeking warm-and-fuzzy holiday fare with a couple eminently empathetic actors.
Tech credits are polished.