The premise for Martian Child is almost unbearably adorable: a sci-fi writer adopts a little boy who thinks he is from Mars. The writer is a lonesome widower searching for meaning in his life. The little boy is an odd duck outcast with a tendency to steal things. The quirky duo provide each other with companionship and love.
Basically, that's the story. It's not particularly layered or nuanced or deep. What makes it compelling are the actors who bring brightness to these fairly cut-and-dry roles. The boy playing the painfully awkward Dennis has this wispy high-pitched voice that is so strange-sounding you sometimes wonder if he really is an alien. Cusack, having become this year's Gloomy Dad of the Year (what with Grace Is Gone and 1408) manages to still garner sympathy with the same puppy-dog faces he always uses. It's not the most outstanding film ever, but it's sweet enough, and to find out why,
Cusack plays David, the widower novelist whose popular sci-fi book is being turned into a movie. He's also received an advance to write the sequel to said sci-fi book, but can't seem to get inspired to do so, despite pressure from his anxious agent (Oliver Platt) and hard-nosed publisher (Anjelica Huston). David decides to follow up on his late wife's dream of adopting a child. Enter Dennis, a pale, slight boy who is utterly convinced that he was brought to Earth by Martians to study Earthling life. He shies away from the sun and wears a weight belt, lest he float away.
The two guys seem perfectly suited for one another, mutual love of all things outer-space and all. In some ways they help each other, but there are some bumps to navigate, including the doubts of the children's services people that David can effectively parent a child as "troubled" as Dennis.
It's definitely not a subtle work. There seems to be a fondness for references to feeling like an "alien" in human society (i.e. doesn't everyone feel different sometimes, and therefore, don't we all relate to Dennis?). For the more dense audience members, a Hammer of Clarity comes down swift and heavy when David's publisher plainly asks upon learning that he didn't write the sequel that they agreed upon, "Why can't you just be what we want you to be?" Cue the string music and the look of dawning realization on David's face that he and his strange adopted son are not so different after all. Neither of them are meeting the expectations of their fellow Earthlings.
And there are moments, such as a way-too-long climactic scene toward the end that are so overly sentimental they easily give the Hallmark Channel's made-for-TV movies a run for their money. Indeed, the "cheese factor" is pretty darn high in this movie, but it's hard to be truly annoyed with such endearing characters. Also, if you're a fan of most anything John Cusack does, you'll probably enjoy the movie well enough. It's no High Fidelity, but it's head and shoulders above Must Love Dogs.
Photos courtesy of New Line