This review was written for the theatrical release of "Martian Child."
The very notion of a story about a widower struggling to bond with a hard-to-place foster child might set the schmaltz-averse running.
Those who stick with "Martian Child" won't entirely avoid mush, but they will find terrific performances by John Cusack, as the parental unit, and 10-year-old Bobby Coleman, as the self-proclaimed extraterrestrial. Their unpredictable interactions infuse the proceedings with an immediacy that helps sell the overly pointed lessons of the script. Going wide against "Bee Movie" and "American Gangster," the film could find itself a boxoffice orphan whose welcoming home awaits on DVD.
The project reteams Cusack with director Menno Meyjes, in whose feature debut, "Max," he played a Jewish art dealer who meets an aspiring painter named Adolf Hitler. Despite their disparate tones, the films share the idea of a sensitive individual trying to coax an outsider into a sense of worth and belonging. In its balancing act between feel-good aphorisms and comic drama, "Martian Child" too frequently loses its equilibrium. But in its best moments, an engagingly weird and vulnerable mood prevails.
Adapting David Gerrold's autobiographical novel about a single gay man who adopts a troubled child, scripters Seth E. Bass and Jonathan Tolins have made the protagonist a widowed straight man -- screenplay shorthand for noble, selfless good guy. But Cusack is too smart an actor to solicit audience sympathy and has such a natural screen presence that he makes David Gordon likable on his own terms. The author of sci-fi fantasy best-sellers with titles like "Dracoban," he's a grown-up misfit who's slightly amazed that he's made a go of adulthood.
Two years after the death of his wife, David still weeps over her photos, puttering around the modernist geometric palace of a home that he shares with a floppy-eared dog -- who's shamelessly used in an egregiously unearned plot point. David's best friend and obvious ideal mate, Harlee (lovely work by Amanda Peet), encourages his plans to adopt, while his sister (Joan Cusack), a moderately harried mother of two boys, provides get-real admonitions.
David overcomes cold feet to adopt Dennis, who must first be lured from the protective shell of an Amazon carton (a unique bit of product placement) and into the glare of the Earth's atmosphere. Equipped with a battery-weighted "holding-down belt" to keep him from floating back to Mars, Dennis is a moon-pale boy with a 1970s haircut and wispy voice. In oversize shades, he grudgingly tolerates David's paternal overtures, looking for all the world like an unsmiling minicelebrity or, as Harlee notes with delighted equanimity, a "little Andy Warhol."
Dennis embarks on an anthropological "mission," snapping Polaroids of his earthly environs and collecting other people's things -- also known as stealing -- and sending up a red flag with social services, represented by Richard Schiff and Sophie Okonedo in understated turns.
Oliver Platt and Anjelica Huston, as David's agent and publisher, respectively, are asked to embody cliches, particularly in a ridiculous book party scene that provides a Cliffs Notes summary of the movie's theme.
The story's hold deepens when it isn't underlining its ideas about the parent/child divide, fantasy as coping mechanism and the value of being different but instead gives way to unexplained whimsy like Dennis' oddly beautiful Martian dance.
Meyjes and DP Robert Yeoman use off-center imagery to convey more than the dialogue can say, with low-key but strong design and costume contributions. Vancouver plays Chicago to nicely overcast effect.
A David Kirschner/Corey Sienega/Ed Elbert production
Director: Menno Meyjes
Screenwriters: Seth E. Bass, Jonathan Tolins
Based on the book by: David Gerrold
Producers: David Kirschner, Corey Sienega, Ed Elbert
Executive producers: Toby Emmerich, Mark Kaufman, Matt Moore, David Gerrold, Mike Drake
Director of photography: Robert Yeoman
Production designer: Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski
Music: Aaron Zigman
Co-producers: Seth E. Bass, Jonathan Tolins
Costumer designer: Michael Dennison
Editor: Bruce Green
David Gordon: John Cusack
Harlee: Amanda Peet
Jeff: Oliver Platt
Sophie: Sophie Okonedo
Dennis: Bobby Coleman
Lefkowitz: Richard Schiff
Dr. Berg: Howard Hesseman
Liz: Joan Cusack
Tina: Anjelica Huston
Running time -- 107 minutes
MPAA rating: PG