Directed by: Menno Meyjes
Starring: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Bobby Coleman, Joan Cusack, Sophie Okonedo
Opens: Wednesday, February 27
There's something alien to the proceedings of Martian Child, and it's not the funny-looking orphan who has decided the reason he doesn't fit in is because he's from another planet.
It's the emotional pitch John Cusack is trying for. He's supposed to be a grieving widower, a wealthy sci-fi writer whose life won't be complete until he does "something meaningful," in this case adopting an orphan kid. He doesn't pull it off.
There's a line from the opening narration that makes Cusack seem perfect for the role of writer David Gordon. He's a guy, he admits, who "looks at life from a safe distance." That's Cusack's screen career in a quote - remote, charming, witty, but a little too cool to "get involved."
He may click with leading ladies such as Amanda Peet, as the too-pretty, too-adorable sister of his late wife. But he doesn't connect with the child or convince us for a second that his character has to rescue little Dennis (Bobby Coleman), an orphan who spends his days hiding in a cardboard box, wearing a "gravity belt" made of D-cell batteries (for the weight).
The boy, sort of a kid version of K-PAX, looks at the world through an outsider's eyes. He has these elaborate, attention-grabbing quirks, which his would-be dad rightly identifies as "coping mechanisms." Dennis hangs upside down, wears his gravity belt, his sunglasses and gobs of sunscreen because the sun is too bright from this distance, the Earth's gravity too weak. He steals things, but what he's really doing is collecting specimens, taking Polaroid photos of anything and everyone. And David's sister (Joan Cusack) is warning him of the "red flags" this child's problems seem to be.
Cusack re-teamed with the director of the clever Max for this adaptation of David Gerrold's novel, and that, too, seems miscalculated. Menno Meyjes creates a tone that is more clinical than sentimental, when sentiment is exactly what was called for. The script and the stars don't find a real answer for the writer's compulsion to save this boy, and the changes in his mood toward the kid (and the mood of the film) are abrupt and perfunctory - plot devices.
Cusack was more compelling as a dad who has lost his child in 1408 than he has been in anything that has him taking a shot at single-parenting. He's perfectly believable here. But dressed in his ever-stylish black, sarcastically dodging his agent (Oliver Platt) and publisher (Anjelica Huston, his Grifters teammate), he just can't seem to conjure up a reservoir of emotions to make Martian Child human.