The Kid from Planet Cliché
Despite a trailer so cheesy you could melt it and dip tortilla chips in it, Martian Child at least has an honorable premise at its core. This is a story about two people, a guy and a kid, who've both lost love in the past and are trying to find it again in their own quirky ways. It's the sort of simple tale that, if done right, could result in an outpouring of earnest emotions and strong performances. Unfortunately, Martian Child tries to be more than this and throws on too many plot-related bells and whistles in the process.
John Cusack stars as David Gordon, a science fiction writer who still hasn't recovered from the death of his wife. To fill the empty emotional space in his life --and against the advice of his sister (Joan Cusack) but with the support of his deceased wife's sister (Amanda Peet) -- David decides to adopt a child. Almost immediately, he becomes intrigued by a boy named Dennis (Bobby Coleman) who traipses around in a big cardboard box, has a tendency to steal things, and, if you haven't figured out already from the title, firmly believes he's a Martian on a mission to study Earth families. Having grown up as a similarly weird kid, David adopts little Dennis, and although the tyke's mounting eccentricities prove to be a handful, David is undeterred in his quest to be the best father he can be.
If something about Martian Child sounds vaguely familiar, you've probably seen a film like this one before. Essentially, the plot comes across as a re-tooling of the idea behind K-PAX, which was centered around a psychiatrist and a patient who believed himself to be an alien being. Both films cover pretty much the same thematic ground, in how the "alien" acts as a catalyst, inspiring the respective main characters to get their acts together and incite some personal growth. Alas, Martian Child isn't quite as adept in pulling off a drama centered around human emotion and dabbling lightly in the realm of the fantastic. Granted, I get the title's dual meaning (a single guy trying to raise an oddball kid is like taking care of a Martian), and I understand what the film is trying to say with its themes. But director Menno Meyjes ends up overcomplicating the storytelling, taking a simple little tale and ruining it by forcing the film to be more than what it was meant to be.
Most of this reaching exercise stems from Martian Child's subplot regarding whether or not Dennis really is an alien. The script runs with this idea for a bit, dropping tiny hints and providing Dennis with weird little abilities, but this element of the story isn't so much given a solid resolution as it's eventually left alone and very vaguely tied up at the end. An even worse fate meets the awkward romantic subplot between the characters played by Cusack and Peet. It seems shoehorned in on a whim and forgotten about just as quickly. The plot as a whole, despite its beginning promise, degenerates into a soapy drama. That's a shame, because Cusack puts a lot of effort into his performance, and Peet's sunny personality shines brightly even though the script doesn't provide her with much of a reason to stick around. I can't say the same for little Bobby Coleman, whose robotic demeanor may fit his character but seems too distracting.
Martian Child means well, and Cusack carries the story a long way, but much like The Last Mimzy, the movie ends up being too heavy for kids to enjoy and too scattershot for adults to appreciate.
MY RATING: ** (out of ****)
(Released by New Line Cinema and rated "PG" for thematic elements and mild language.)