"Martian Child" is a kind of sweet, definitely safe, and ultimately flavorless drama. Based on the semi-autobiographical book by David Gerrold about a gay writer who adopts an abandoned young boy believing to hail from outer space, the film's edges have been rounded off and the protagonist's sexual orientation has been straightened for no good reason other than to appease studio bosses who wouldn't dream of releasing a movie with a homosexual lead character. This observation in the page-to-screen adaptation by director Menno Meyjes (2002's "Max
") and writers Seth E. Bass and Jonathan Tolins does not have any substantial effect on the picture as a whole, but it does signal a lack of courage and ambition from those working behind the camera and behind the desks at New Line Cinematwo things that the film is in need of in order to be more than a forgettably saccharine piffle.
David (John Cusack) is a best-selling science fiction novelist still nursing a broken heart left in the wake of his wife's death. Yearning to have a child of his ownthe two of them were planning to have one togetherhe disregards his housemaker sister Liz's (Joan Cusack) warnings of the pitfalls and sacrifices of parenting and makes the giant decision to adopt Dennis (Bobby Coleman). A shy, pale-skinned second-grader who claims to be from Mars, hates the sun, and will only eat Lucky Charms, Dennis is eccentric to say the least. David is willing to accept him for who he isor, who he believes he isbut the confusion that comes with being a father versus being a friend puts some doubts in the minds of the child welfare workers monitoring Dennis' progress in his new surroundings.
As has seemed to be the norm this year, "Martian Child" is heartfelt, but uninspired. Sort of a child version of 2001's dismal "K-Pax
," the film follows a plodding, predictable path that does not deviate for a second from what the viewer expects. The story is thin and the narrative lacks conflict and forward motion outside of David's attempts to be a good parent and get through to Dennis that the neglect he has experienced thus far in his life has finally ended. Were there more of a question as to whether or not Dennis was really from another planet, it might have added an interesting dynamic. As is, it is clear that he is simply a human boy in need of love. Only in a few later scenes, as when David's dog passes away and Dennis is confronted with death for the first time, does the picture resound with complete emotional truth that doesn't feel manufactured.
John Cusack (2007's "1408
") is an ever-reliable rare breed of Hollywood actor who is able to elevate the roles he takes on, even when said roles are at the service of lesser projects. As David, Cusack navigates between the painful pathos of a man still mourning the loss of a cherished wife and the yearning and commitment of a man who wants to prove to himself that he can single-handedly raise and love a child. As the troubled Dennis, Bobby Coleman (2005's "Must Love Dogs
") is a solid child actor who does a good job of playing quirky without falsely appearing to mug for the camera. Supporting characters, such as David's sister, Liz, and best friend/potential love interest Harlee (Amanda Peet), do not receive the depth or care at the screenplay level for them to take off as fully formed participants in the plot. This is disappointing, because Amanda Peet (2006's "The Ex
") and especially the irreverent and funny Joan Cusack (2005's "Ice Princess
") are capable of much more than they are allowed here.
"Martian Child" climaxes with a pseudo-crisis that any viewer who has seen more than a few movies will recognize as a cheap ploy to add excitement to prefabricated proceedings. It, like much of the rest of the film, carries itself out like a foregone conclusion. There isn't anything that is terribly wrong with "Martian Child"okay, the contrived scene where David and Dennis go on a rampage through their home, breaking plates and squirting ketchup at each other, is a bit of an eye-rollerbut there also isn't anything to really sit up and take notice of. The movie simply sits there, waiting for the creaking wheels of the plot to turn so it can reach its upbeat conclusion.