John Cusack, who more or less began his career sneaking a peek at Molly Ringwald's panties in Sixteen Candles, has finally become an on-screen daddy — only took, what, 23 years? Except he's not exactly the most fortunate family man on film: First, in Martian Child, he plays a widower who adopts an abused child with an alien complex (the kid thinks he's from Mars); next, in the upcoming Grace Is Gone, he'll play a man whose wife has died fighting in Iraq, stranding him with two young girls with whom he's unable to share the truth about Mommy.
No wonder Cusack's remained a confirmed bachelor; in the movies, at least, parenting doesn't seem all it's cracked up to be. Martian Child certainly isn't much fun, unless you were desperately awaiting K-PAX with a kid instead of Kevin Spacey. Not that there's ever any question over whether Dennis (Bobby Coleman) is actually a Martian, but the conceit's more or less the same: The kid sports sunglasses, lest the sunlight melt his eyeballs; wears a belt made of batteries, to keep him from floating into orbit; builds elaborate contraptions meant to connect him with his home planet; and spends his time conducting field research (which is to say, taking Polaroids) before the aliens return to spirit him back to Mars.
All Dennis needs is a home to phone. And that's provided by a man who knows nothing about being a father, Cusack's David Gordon, a writer of sci-fi blockbusters who believes his own experiences as a boyhood outsider will allow him to heal the wounded child living under his roof. Those who know better than to allow the still-grieving, slightly stunted David custody of Dennis go along with it: the woman in charge of the adoption agency (Sophie Okonedo), the case worker who visits during Dennis's one violent outburst (Richard Schiff), the sister who can't handle her own perfectly normal sons (Joan Cusack, shocking), the friend who'd clearly like to be more (Amanda Peet) and the agent begging David for the novel he's yet to deliver (Oliver Platt).
The movie, directed by Menno Meyjes (responsible for the loony and somehow boring Max) and written by the pair behind Twilight of the Golds, feels absolutely phony, predictable and pedestrian. But so, too, did much of the book upon which the movie's based: In 2002, award-winning sci-fi writer David Gerrold published a sorta-autobiographical novel in which he recounts his own struggles with a similarly disturbed eight-year-old boy named Dennis. That Gerrold chose to fictionalize his story was disappointing and resulted in a novel that felt glib and cutesy, bereft of much of the ugliness, terror and pain that comes not only with being an adoptive father, but just a father.
If the novel felt gutted, the movie is downright gutless. Gerrold's gay, and at least the novel dealt with that aspect of his life (in the first ten pages, no less): Gerrold writes that being a gay adoptive father "wasn't an issue." But it clearly was for the filmmakers, as the movie turns David Gordon into a hetero stud, with Peet as the petite love interest always hovering in the margins.
Of course, few going in to see Martian Child will know its origins or care that it's been sanitized. All they'll want to know is whether it's a time-killing tear-jerker, the story of a sad little boy made whole by the stranger who comes to wuv him. And it kind of is, although Cusack and Coleman, who both appeared in Must Love Dogs, feel like they're in two separate movies — Cusack in the one about the single dad trying to get his shit together, Coleman in the one about the strange little boy who steals things and hangs upside down. Theirs is less a connection than a forced living arrangement brokered by agents and studio bosses.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.