Hating on goodhearted movies about special kids is probably one of those things that gets you sent to hell.
Not regular fun hell, either, but an ironic one, where gaggles of shine-eyed, moppy-haired children teach you how wonderful life and love were until you can't help but hug everyone in sight and the devil realizes this isn't working and just goes back to spitting you with a pitchfork instead.
Or possibly not. I have it on good authority that the afterlife consists of paddling around a small lake in a swan-boat with a glass of lemonade that refills itself the very moment you take the last drink. I figure it'll only take about five years of tooling around like that to make peace with the fact I once naysayed clumsy heartwarmers like "Martian Child."
Here, John Cusack had once intended to adopt, but that was before his wife passed on. Unsure of whether he should try to take on the responsibility of parenthood without her, it isn't until he meets Bobby Coleman (a strange, shy boy who walks around in a cardboard box and believes he's from Mars) that Cusack, a sci-fi writer who's always felt a little weird himself, decides to see if he can make it work.
He makes slow progress with the insular Coleman, letting the kid choose his own meals, goof off with a camera, tell stories about what it's like to be a Martian. Coleman doesn't fit in at school, though, and combined with his compulsive stealing, he's kicked out with the suggestion Cusack take him to a school more suited to his needs.
Worried the social workers will take the kid away if he keeps having problems, Cusack has to wrestle with what's in Coleman's best interests: letting the kid be himself and risk losing him, or making him act normal and lose the uniqueness that makes Coleman who he is.
Outside forces are always threatening to mess up their makeshift family, so cheers to "Martian Child" for trying to build some tension into its inevitable conclusion, but jeers to the way Coleman's behavior never veers into anything truly problematic or dangerous. He's just a little different, a little hard to understand, and with no rough edges to truly try Cusack's saintly patience, there's never really any question as to whether he's making the right decision.
Extra-large jeers to the semi-mystical scenes where Coleman might be able to do the strange Martian things he's always talking about, like making wishes come true or being able to taste colors. Seriously, a colossal, eardrum-shattering boo to that. In a movie that wants to make a big deal about the value of human individuality, the worst thing it can do is hint that probably not but just maybe this kid really is from Mars and if he is from Mars then he really must be special. It's not like Coleman's shown raising the dead or turning a puppy into the size of the Chrysler Building or anything like that, but it is manipulative, trying to stir up a question that didn't need to be asked and getting away from the father-son relationship that's "Martian Child's" best part.
At least those moments are a relief from the relentless "grownups speechifying to other grownups about life" that hamstrings it right out of the gate. For a movie about a writer, it's bizarre that a good 80% of the dialogue between adults takes the form of clunky platitudes and bald-faced philosophy.
I'm not a parent, so perhaps this is just beyond my depth, but do parents really spend this much time telling other parents how to be parents? If they do, why aren't they all too busy throttling each other to spare a single minute for child-rearing? Shouldn't every child's birthday party or meeting of the PTA almost instantly devolve into essentially a bare-knuckles massacre between adults who just can't take any more condescending advice from other adults about how to raise their kid? Because if I were John Cusack, and I had to take all these people's earthy wisdom about my son, I would be punching people until they punched me back so hard I had to stop.
It's not the sap that makes sappy movies frustrate your brain rather than blowing sparks into your heart. It's when they feel too perfect, too easy, and "Martian Child's" got a neat little bow wrapped around its message and its characters. I might have cared a little more if there were ever a moment when I felt like things might not turn out perfectly okay.