Upon seeing Judge Paul Pritchard mere seconds after his birth, an unkind nurse remarked to his mother than he looked like he'd come from Uranus.
Some fathers and sons grow up together.
John Cusack makes any movie he is in 25.8% better. And that's a scientific fact. But is it enough to save Martian Child?
Facts of the Case
Widowed two years prior to the start of the film, science fiction writer David (John Cusack, Grosse Pointe Blank) decides to follow through with his late wife's wish and adopt a child, something the two had planned to do together. Unsure at first, David finds himself drawn to Dennis, a troubled young boy who hides in a box…oh, and he believes he is from Mars.
Little by little David slowly begins to earn Dennis's trust and help him understand what it is to be an Earthling. Ah, can you feel your heart strings being tugged? Hmm, can you?
There is a great skill in creating something—be it a film, a book, or a piece of music—that connects with another individual on a personal level and draws out an emotional response. Kevin Costner playing baseball with his dad in Field of Dreams, Andy and Red reuniting at the end of The Shawshank Redemption, the rest of the Muppets coming together to put on Kermit's show in The Muppets Take Manhattan; it's a wonderful feeling when you realize someone you have never met, and likely never will, has produced something that touches you deeply. Of course, if you lack the talent you can always play a somber piece of music to let your audience know when they should feel sad, and throw in montages of people having fun accompanied by "Mr. Blue Sky" to let them know when it's time to smile, a crime Martian Child is frequently guilty of.
Throughout the film's duration, I couldn't help but feel that Martian Child was more interested in tugging the viewer's heartstrings than telling a good story. Let's look at the evidence shall we? John Cusack plays David, a widower who misses his wife whom he dearly loved. David has a dog, and the dog is old. Since this is a movie, it doesn't take a genius to see what is coming here. Next we have Dennis, who is in a care home and unable to connect with anyone due to being abandoned so many times in his six years. Reaching for the tissues yet? It just goes on and on, the clichés mounting up. From the adoption board that begins to question David's suitability as a responsible parent, to David's burgeoning relationship with Harlee (Amanda Peet, Syriana), Martian Child is relentless in its attempt to get some kind of response.
If the constant attempts at making us shed a tear weren't enough, the film hammers home the message that it's okay to be yourself. Which is great, because I didn't know that. Characters in the film are split between those who believe in conformity and those who believe self-expression and that being a little nuts is okay. Clearly subtlety isn't Martian Child's greatest strength.
Interestingly this is all based on true events as revealed in "The Real Martian Child" featurette. David Gerrold wrote the book on which the film is based from his own experiences of adopting a young boy. The short piece, which details their story and how it translates to the film, reveals there are good intentions behind this project, making the shortcomings of the film even more frustrating.
The rest of the special features are standard fare but really quite dull. Picture quality on the disc is impressive with good color reproduction and a sharp image. Likewise the audio is without any faults.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
No doubt some of you will have already skipped to the verdict and noticed the judgment I've given to Martian Child is far from damning. So what gives? Well, to write the film off purely down to some poor choices made by the writers and director would be unfair to Martian Child's trump card and saving grace, its cast.
We may as well get it out there because I know we're all thinking it: John Cusack is great. I'm not talking about his role in this movie per se, more in general. From Say Anything to High Fidelity, the guy combines an instant likeability with performance after performance that sells the story to you, a rare commodity. Never really being on the A-list himself, Cusack shows here once again that, if talent were the true barometer of celebrity, he would be right at the top. Given a role with which many would wallow in a pool of schmaltz, Cusack reins in the sentimentality and underplays the obvious tear-jerking moments. It saves the film.
Youngster Bobby Coleman (Must Love Dogs), as Dennis, gives a fine performance here. Along with Cusack he has the lion's share of the screen time and rarely puts a foot wrong. The two have a good chemistry that brings warmth and humor to the film.
One of the few plot strands that remains interesting throughout is whether Dennis truly is from Mars, as he claims. Through a number of scenes that aim to test his claim to be a Martian, we are left wondering, pretty much up until the end credits, whether he really is an alien. It helps to hold interest in an otherwise formulaic film.
There is nothing particularly wrong with Martian Child, but then, save for the cast, there is nothing particularly great about it either. Fans of Cusack (which I count myself among) will find something to enjoy here, as will anyone who enjoys TV film-of-the-week style weepies. Anyone else need not apply.
Jumping from manipulative and overly sentimental one minute to warm and funny the next, Martian Child is an uneven experience. Luckily John Cusack puts in a rock-solid defense and saves the day, resulting in a hung jury.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Feature Audio Commentary with Producers David Kirschner and Carey Sienega, and writers Seth E. Bass and Jonathan Tolins
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