I think I’d like Menno Meyjes’ Martian Child better if it was actively bad instead of passively indifferent. At least I know I’d respect it more for not having been through the Hollywooden Bland-o-Matic processor—twice. It’s rare that a movie has this little flavor. Compared to Martian Child, a jar of Gerber’s mashed bananas is a taste treat. This is a classic case of “If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the movie.” Every faux, quirky, pseudo-heartwarming aspect of this cinematic blancmange is telegraphed in two-and-a-half minutes of trailer. Watching the movie only adds 105 minutes of utter predictability.
John Cusack—at his most Cusackian (albeit sans “the standing in the rain” scene)—stars as David Gordon, a widower and supposedly successful sci-fi writer (he appears to live quite nicely off the proceeds of a single book) who opts to adopt a lad named Dennis (Bobby Coleman). Dennis is just your average rejected child—except that he spends all his time inside a large Amazon.com shipping box, thinks he’s from Mars, believes the sun will burn him to a crispy noodle, and has an alarming penchant for kleptomania. The reasoning behind this adoption is a tad on the specious side, since it mostly comes down to the fact that adoption worker Sophie (Sophie Okonedo, Dirty Pretty Things) has decided that a science-fiction writer and a disturbed kid who thinks he’s from Mars would make a good match.
David’s sister, Liz (Joan Cusack—is it true that if you hire John, you get Joan for one cent more?), thinks the adoption is a bad idea. So does David’s venal agent, Jeff (Oliver Platt, Casanova), who is more concerned with David finishing the sequel to his book. The adoption authorities—notably a sour gent named Lefkowitz (Richard Schiff, Ray)—aren’t all that keen on it either. The only one in favor of all this is David’s not-quite-love-interest Harlee (Amanda Peet), and since she’s mostly in the movie for decorative purposes (and to remove even a scintilla of doubt about David’s sexuality, since the character in the source novel was gay), she hardly counts.
The whole idea is supposed to come down to the concept that two damaged oddballs—David and Dennis—will be each other’s salvation. Setting aside questions of the veracity of this concept, it’s one that would work better if Cusack’s character actually seemed odd in any way, but he doesn’t. His entire oddness—apart from his decision to take on this child—is a matter of the script claiming he’s unusual. It also might help if there was even the smallest hint of tension between David and Dennis—especially since one of the films Martian Child would like to emulate is the Weitz Brothers’ About a Boy (2002). But there’s no tension and never even a shift in tone. No matter what Dennis does, David just keeps on being the indulgent dad.
The movie ultimately feels phony and more than a little dull. Nearly everything Dennis does comes across less like something a genuinely troubled kid would do than like a screenwriter’s playlist of unbalanced cuteness. By the time the film got to its feel-good orgy of crockery smashing (heavily played up in the trailer), I was hoping for Mae Busch to wander in from an old Laurel and Hardy short and finish both David and Dennis off with a rolling pin. Instead we get the officious Lefkowitz wandering into the mess to glare disapprovingly at their behavior. All it lacks to achieve total sitcomery in this instance is an I Love Lucy laugh track with that woman who cries out, “Oh, no!” just prior to every highly anticipated shenanigan.
Moreover, the film’s big “moment of truth,” when David’s publisher (Anjelica Huston) asks him, “Why can’t you just be who we want you to be?” is the sort of thing that makes Tyler Perry’s writing look positively subtle. Slap Cat Stevens’ “Don’t Be Shy” (does someone honestly think David and Dennis are Harold and Maude?) and two doses of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” onto the soundtrack and the whiff of prefab, unassimilated pop culture is unmistakable.
Overall, the acting is rarely more than functionally adequate. Cusack seems to be on autopilot. Joan Cusack brings the same emotional depth to her role here that she evidenced in her cell-phone commercials. Oliver Platt, Amanda Peet, Sophie Okoneda and Anjelica Huston are pretty much wasted, and only newcomer Bobby Coleman as Dennis makes much of an impression. The film does boast one killer visual in a scene where David and Dennis are in a car at night with the reflected lights of the city making them appear to be moving through the stars. But this is just an isolated moment in a movie awash in indifference. Rated PG for thematic elements and mild language.