'Martian Child' Lacks Faith in its Source
John Cusack plays widower David Gordon, a self-described "damaged successful person" whose hit science-fiction novel has made him rich but not fulfilled. Longing to do something meaningful with his life, he explores adoption, and his writing (plus his history as a geeky outcast) helps him gravitate toward Dennis (Bobby Coleman), a withdrawn abuse victim who insists he's a Martian. Rather than dissuading him, David gently plays along, half humoring Dennis and half sympathizing with his obvious defense mechanisms against human trauma.
Like Gerrold's story, much of the film simply follows Dennis and David as they emerge from their separate shells. They're both nakedly vulnerable; David is terrified he'll further damage Dennis, while Dennis anticipates further rejection. Still, David's unconventional, playful trust-building exercises prove effective, though the adoption board thinks otherwise.
Which is where "Martian Child" ultimately falls apart. Cusack, so often the go-to actor for bruised dignity, sells his role in fine low-key style, and Coleman is an appropriate blend of adorable and unsettling. Their scenes together are sweet and convincing, and director Menno Meyjes (who also directed Cusack in 2002's "Max") lets them proceed at a leisurely, explorative pace.
But where Gerrold found enough drama in Dennis' struggles at home and school, the filmmakers needed broader conflict, so they tack on battles with the cartoonishly judgmental board, whose representative literally comes around to peek in David's windows. Then there's the strained subplot involving David's brittle publisher (Anjelica Huston), who's furious that he isn't producing another bestseller on schedule. The tantrum where she publicly shrieks at David, "Why can't you just be what we want you to be?" underlines the movie's non-conformist themes in vivid red crayon, booting all subtlety out the window. In December, Cusack will be back on screen in "Grace Is Gone," another portrait of a grieving widower struggling to raise children. Viewers may want to hold out to see him in a film that maintains its sensitivity all the way through.
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