Movie News & Reviews

Martian Child plot is not that alien

Hating on goodhearted movies about special kids is probably one ofthose things that gets you sent to hell.

Not regular fun hell, either, but an ironic one, where gaggles ofshine-eyed, moppy-haired children teach you how wonderful life andlove were until you can't help but hug everyone in sight and the devilrealizes this isn't working and just goes back to spitting you with apitchfork instead.

Or possibly not. I have it on good authority that the afterlifeconsists of paddling around a small lake in a swan-boat with a glassof lemonade that refills itself the very moment you take the lastdrink. I figure it'll only take about five years of tooling aroundlike that to make peace with the fact I once naysayed clumsyheartwarmers like "Martian Child."

Here, John Cusack had once intended to adopt, but that was before hiswife passed on. Unsure of whether he should try to take on theresponsibility of parenthood without her, it isn't until he meetsBobby Coleman (a strange, shy boy who walks around in a cardboard boxand believes he's from Mars) that Cusack, a sci-fi writer who's alwaysfelt a little weird himself, decides to see if he can make it work.

He makes slow progress with the insular Coleman, letting the kidchoose his own meals, goof off with a camera, tell stories about whatit'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 thesuggestion Cusack take him to a school more suited to his needs.

Worried the social workers will take the kid away if he keeps havingproblems, Cusack has to wrestle with what's in Coleman's bestinterests: letting the kid be himself and risk losing him, or makinghim act normal and lose the uniqueness that makes Coleman who he is.

Outside forces are always threatening to mess up their makeshiftfamily, so cheers to "Martian Child" for trying to build some tensioninto its inevitable conclusion, but jeers to the way Coleman'sbehavior never veers into anything truly problematic or dangerous.He's just a little different, a little hard to understand, and with norough edges to truly try Cusack's saintly patience, there's neverreally any question as to whether he's making the right decision.

Extra-large jeers to the semi-mystical scenes where Coleman might beable to do the strange Martian things he's always talking about, likemaking wishes come true or being able to taste colors. Seriously, acolossal, eardrum-shattering boo to that. In a movie that wants tomake a big deal about the value of human individuality, the worstthing it can do is hint that probably not but just maybe this kidreally is from Mars and if he is from Mars then he really must bespecial. It's not like Coleman's shown raising the dead or turning apuppy into the size of the Chrysler Building or anything like that,but it is manipulative, trying to stir up a question that didn't needto 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 "grownupsspeechifying to other grownups about life" that hamstrings it rightout of the gate. For a movie about a writer, it's bizarre that a good80% of the dialogue between adults takes the form of clunky platitudesand bald-faced philosophy.

I'm not a parent, so perhaps this is just beyond my depth, but doparents really spend this much time telling other parents how to beparents? If they do, why aren't they all too busy throttling eachother to spare a single minute for child-rearing? Shouldn't everychild's birthday party or meeting of the PTA almost instantly devolveinto essentially a bare-knuckles massacre between adults who justcan't take any more condescending advice from other adults about howto raise their kid? Because if I were John Cusack, and I had to takeall these people's earthy wisdom about my son, I would be punchingpeople until they punched me back so hard I had to stop.

It's not the sap that makes sappy movies frustrate your brain ratherthan blowing sparks into your heart. It's when they feel too perfect,too easy, and "Martian Child's" got a neat little bow wrapped aroundits message and its characters. I might have cared a little more ifthere were ever a moment when I felt like things might not turn outperfectly okay.

Grade: C