Martian Child (2007)
When in doubt for a sentimental story pair up a lonely man with a kid. It worked for Charlie Chaplin, Dustin Hoffman, and even Adam Sandler. There is something fundamentally appealing in an old school Hollywood way about seeing a grown man become kinder, gentler, and loving. Attaching children to slobs and jerks has been historically beneficial in the realm of cinema; they tend to think beyond themselves and become better people. In fact, doctors should take heed and start using children as medicinal services (“Feeling depressed? Raise this adorably precocious child for an indefinite period of time!”). Martian Child is the latest pre-programmed entry in this favorite Hollywood combination.
David (John Cusack) is a science fiction writer still in mourning for his dearly departed wife. He decides to stay true to a plan he and the dead misses had to adopt a child. Enter Dennis (Bobby Coleman), a kid who spends his time in a large box because he believes he’s from Mars. The adoption agency believes that a kid who thinks he’s a Martian would be ideal for a science fiction writer. David reflects that he was an outcast as a kid as well and he sees a side of himself in this spacey kid. David agrees to become a father but is placed on a trial basis because the film needs something to come to a head for Act Three. Dennis says his mission is to learn about “human beingness” but he has other quirks as well; he only eats Lucky Charms cereal, he takes lots of photos as documentation, and he steals items for further study. David learns that parenthood can, shocker, be hard.
Martian Child champions the tireless idea of the individual in a society of people that follow the herd. You’ll be beaten over the head with the movie’s rampant message of individuality and being true to yourself. David tries teaching his would-be alien tyke that there are benefits in being like everyone else and fitting in, but of course we in the audience know the only reason he would say something against his character’s nature is so that it can be repeated back to him in a time of decision-making. And sure enough, when David’s book editor chastises him for not “being what we want you to be” I felt like Martian Child had given me brain damage with the weight of its browbeating message. The problem, though, is that Dennis is not the center of the film and he’s treated as a gloriously fortuitous writing opportunity. Because of this kiddy K-Pax, David is able to shake off his writer’s block and turn in a story based upon his own experiences being a father to a being from another planet. The point of triumph doesn’t seem to be resolving Dennis’ fragile psyche as it does proving David’s book editor wrong, who we must see gingerly crying as she finishes reading the last page of the manuscript. Take that, heartless barons of mass media!
This would all be fine if Dennis was just different or defiantly eccentric, but Dennis has serious emotional problems and deep psychological issues that David is simply not equipped to handle as a novice parent. Dennis shares a lot of symptoms with Asperger’s Syndrome, a higher functioning level of autism. Watching his developmentally delayed social interaction, his total fascination with a specific topic, and his rigid routine, it seems clear that Dennis does have some form of autism, and autism is a whole lot more than being the fun weird kid that a Hollywood movie can glamorize as an outsider crushed by conformity. The whole setup feels inauthentic and potentially irresponsible.
Much of my displeasure comes back to my feelings about the character of Dennis. Personally I couldn’t stand the kid. Maybe my heart is too cold but I never could find myself getting attached to the pint-sized Martian. In fact, I found him increasingly annoying and his squeaky, horse voice to be like nails on a chalkboard by the end of the film. I was also put off by how the filmmakers seemingly turned little weird Dennis into a miniature version of Michael Jackson – pasty white face, ruby red ring of lips, sunglasses, and a parasol to hide from the oh so hazardous rays of the sun. He does show off some nice Martian dance moves, however, if we recall, Jackson also was adept at walking on the moon.
Martian Child is also hobbled by a reliance on cloying clichés. Dennis learns to play baseball. Dennis and David have a food fight but not before bonding over smashing a ridiculous number of home items to prove an earth-shattering point that material possessions don’t matter. Inspirational speeches will be recycled later during key points. David is of course a widower because that’s what single men need to be in romantic comedies in order to be acceptable romantic beings. I remember a slew of Disney animated films where most of the main characters had a parent dead or were orphaned, but now it seems that romantic comedies are following suit as well and working under the guideline that it’s better to be dead than divorced. The overt flirtation with his dead wife’s sister (Amanda Peet) seems awkwardly mishandled and needs further elaboration for any of it to sustain credibility. But the most mawkish moment has to be when Dennis is describing his Martian powers and informs us that Martians have the power to grant wishes, and that he will pass one Martian wish over to David to use at his discretion. You better believe that this is going to be referenced during a late third act hug while the music swells. Martian Child may pretend its different but it follows a very well trodden road all the way to the same happy, predictable destination.
I feel bad for Cusack. He deserves better than to headline such a maudlin misfire like Martian Child. This movie wants to aim squarely for the heart but it feels so phony. Watching Cusack interact with a kid is further proof that this man can do damn near anything but he needs some assistance and a sappy story, an annoying child, and a perplexing half-hearted romance aren’t helping. I felt more emotionally involved to the trailer for Cusack’s upcoming Grace is Gone that played before Martian Child than during any of the 108 minutes of this sentimentally cumbersome load. The film is competently made, however, it all comes back to it feeling overwhelmingly phony, being a manufactured tearjerker from the Hollywood factory line. Everything that follows feels like it’s coming from a formula playbook and there’s nothing new or interesting to offer. Perhaps I am jaded and heartless but Martian Child left me envious for the cold reaches of space.
Nate’s Grade: C