So, let’s say that instead of this, Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court survived some tough times in college, a time that fostered a lot of introspection for Lloyd, and he decided — during that period — to become a science-fiction writer. He and Diane married, chilled out considerably, and lived a very modest, humble life together for 15 or 20 years, and then Diane passed away of unknown causes. Lloyd grieved for a couple of years, sought comfort from his sarcastic, over-protective sister (still played by Joan Cusack), and then decided on a whim to adopt a child. Not just any child, however; a psychologically damaged child, abandoned so often by foster parents that he’d developed a troubling dissociative disorder that made him believe he was from the planet Mars. Fortunately for Lloyd, as the famous author of a Harry Potter like sci-fi novel, he knew a little something about fictional alien life, so the two wounded souls become an uncommonly good match for one another.
And that’s about what Martian Child amounts to; a sweet, sometimes cute film that outlasts its premise by a good 75 minutes or so, but thanks to the presence of Lloyd … ahem, John Cusack, it’s not a terribly obnoxious film. Just kind of cloying and blah. A decent rainy day film if your Netflix queue inexplicably goes dry. Or, for Cusack completists, two hours that you probably won’t mind losing for the greater Cusackian cause.
But, back to that plot: After David (Cusack) takes Dennis (Bobby Coleman) back to his house, he tries his damndest to mainstream Dennis into, well, earthling life. Dennis, who prefers living in an Amazon.com box during the day, eventually weans himself out with UV block and sunglasses, eats Lucky Charms exclusively, and wears a gravity belt made of Duracell batteries to keep him from floating away (if anything, Martian Child is tailor-made for product placement). David, initially, is patient and understanding, succumbing to Dennis’ fantasy life in the hopes that if he can gain Dennis’ trust, he can pull him slowly into reality.
And that’s really where the premise goes awry. The kid is annoying as hell — not the actor, per se; just the character, who sticks with that Martian Asperger’s long after the gimmickry stops being cute. At a certain point about twenty minutes in, Dennis completely loses his adorable-kid appeal, and you just want to pick up the little guy up, throttle him, and say, “Stop it. Stop hanging upside down from trees. Stop stealing your classmates’ shoes. Take off those goddamn sunglasses, and stop doing that thing with your fingers before I break one!” (Please do not call social services on me). Credit Cusack for making it tolerable to sit through, and for selling the hokum with a certain amount of blasé charm.
In fact, Cusack is the sole bright spot in Martian Child, aging gracefully into the father role, and becoming exactly the sort of Dad that Say Anything portended: A patient, affectionate Poppa who toes the line between friend and father-figure exceptionally well and who, even when he loses his temper, nicely expresses his love through anger. It’s just that Martian Child is a terrible vehicle for those talents. It’s got all the painfully banal formula touchstones: cute kid, dead dog, repeating motifs, and a big, climactic waterworks-inducing speech. It’s a bit like having intercourse with a guy, I suppose: You don’t have to put a lot of effort into it to get the expected result, but that doesn’t mean it’s a particularly enjoyable experience. Likewise, Martian Child is a movie you may will yourself not to hate out of respect for Cusack, but if you’re not one of his slavering admirers (as I am), you’ll likely loathe Martian Child for all the right reasons: It’s nauseatingly sentimental, seemingly scripted by General Mills and Kleenex, and gallingly predictable. Fortunately, in a month’s time, Grace is Gone will arrive in theaters and, thanks to one of the best lead performances from an actor all year, Martian Child will be all but forgotten.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Martian Child / Dustin Rowles
Film | November 2, 2007 | Comments ()