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John Cusack, who more or less began his career sneaking a peek at Molly Ringwald's panties in Sixteen Candles, has finally become an onscreen 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. These follow this summer's 1408, in which Cusack portrayed a travel writer estranged from his wife and haunted by the ghost of his dead daughter, all the while stuck in a hotel room that's come to life in order to put Cusack to death. Very little of this, by the way, is covered in What to Expect When You're Expecting.
No wonder Cusack has 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 is 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, snapping Polaroids) before the aliens return to spirit him back to Mars. And, like K-PAX, Martian Child equates mental instability and emotional detachment with the awwww-some cuteness of extraterrestrial life. The kid is not troubled — he just wants to be E.T.
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 caseworker 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). They're all little more than contrived enablers, fictions created to bond an underdeveloped man to a broken boy, and then to watch the pair figure it all out on their own.
The movie, directed by Menno Meyjes (responsible for the loony and somehow boring Max) and written by the duo behind Twilight of the Golds, feels absolutely phony, predictable, and pedestrian. But so did much of the book upon which the movie is based: In 2002, award-winning sci-fi writer David Gerrold, known for having written the Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles," 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 also simply a father.
If the novel felt gutted, the movie is downright gutless. Gerrold is gay, and at least the novel dealt with that aspect of his life — within the first 10 pages, no less, during which 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, waiting to sink her giant teeth into David as soon as he gets over the dead wife (or girlfriend — we're never quite sure).
Of course, few going in to see Martian Child will know its origins or care that it has 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, though Cusack and Coleman, who both appeared in Must Love Dogs, seem 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.
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