November 4, 2007

Movie Review: Martian Child

Martian Child stars John Cusack as David Gordon, a popular science fiction writer. On a seeming whim he adopts young Dennis, a troubled youngster who spends much of his time in a box, combating the effects of the sun and attempting to keep from floating away. Oh yes, Dennis also claims to be from Mars, he has come to this planet on a mission to learn about human beings. That is the setup for this slightly sappy and underwritten drama that seeks to show how teaching lessons is a two way street, a street that would lead David and Dennis to a better understanding of what it means to be human. Well, that or Dennis suffered a little too much sun exposure while watching E.T.

I really wanted to like Martian Child and on some level I do like it. The problem is that the script never digs much beyond some surface scraping. Yes, there is a lot that could be inferred by what is on the screen; I do not mean to say that everything should be spelled out for the viewer. If/when you watch the movie see if there is anything in the screenplay that makes any serious attempt at dealing with the issues at hand. It seems like the story is content to sit back and let the obvious warm your heart. If it can make you misty at all it has done its job and it needs not work any harder. The core story has so much potential, yet the end result does not explore beyond some modest aspirations of imparting the difficult/rewarding aspect of parenting.

The movie opens with a flashback with narration to David's (Cusack) childhood. He was the picked on outsider, the lonely kid with an active imagination. He used that imagination to escape into a fantasy world. He took this escape and focused it back on the real world and onto the blank page, feeding his writing career. So, when he meets Dennis when considering adoption, he sees a lot of himself in this child. David wins the boy's trust by offering sunglasses and sunblock, humoring the child's fantasy world. Before long, David has brought Dennis home and is supplying him with his desire for Lucky Charms, humoring his Martian heritage, and tolerating his kleptomania.

Martian Child poses much of interest. At the top of the interest list is the use of unconventional parenting techniques that David employs in his attempt to bring Dennis down to earth. The two are very similar, something that David recognizes as the key to helping him. Despite all of Dennis' apparent issues, David has some of his own. He is dealing with an agent as his latest novel is being turned into a movie and the creative compromise that goes into that process. Not only that, he is a recent widower who may have some feelings for his dead wife's sister (Amanda Peet). Not to be left out is David's sister (played by John's real life sister, Joan Cusack) who is always ready to impart some parenting advice.

The narrative plays out in fairly predictable manner. There are the troubles at school (a scene punctuated by a conveniently placed photo of George W. Bush), problems with the adoption board, and pretty much every other cliche from the family drama. The film is not completely devoid of unique, or at lest fresher, elements. I enjoyed the many hints at Dennis actually being a Martian, and the relationship between David and his dead wife's sister. By the time the climax arrives, we already have a good idea of which way it is going to go. There is a disturbing lack of suspense. This poor writing is evidenced early, during an elongated scene of David waiting for the call that he is approved for the adoption. Are we supposed to feel tension here? Seriously, we all know he is going to get the approval, so get on with it already.

As unsatisfying as the movie turned out to be, John Cusack did an admirable job with what he had to work with. He was very good, taking these words and making us care as much as he did is a testament to what he can do. There is a slightly off-normal quality to Cusack that he plays up very well, delivering a combination of grief, hope, anxiety, anger, genuine joy in just the right balance. You can see that he is still that withdrawn picked upon kid of his past, and he sees that in Dennis. This kinship winds up as the cornerstone of the film. Meanwhile, Bobby Coleman does a good job at bringing an unearthly aura to Dennis. He has an odd way of speaking and reacting, perfectly conveying the character's metaphorical fear of "floating away" and desire to study humanity.

Bottomline. Not nearly as good as I had hoped or wanted. It still manages to deliver an enjoyable experience, even though this final version is a frustrating experience as I truly wanted to like it. Strong performances aside, the script betrays the story potential. In the end I can neither fully recommend nor completely pan. Perhaps a wait for DVD would be the best path?

Mildly Recommended.


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