Friday, November 02, 2007

"Martian Child" -- * * *

A quick look on Rotten Tomatoes reveals that “Martian Child,” Menno Meyjes’ new family dramedy, is not getting particularly good reviews. Having seen the film, I can understand why; it’s not very original and doesn’t subvert the material enough to make it into something terribly resonant or powerful. But, though occasionally prone to moments of familiarity and obviousness it might be, I found “Martian Child” surprisingly quirky, gentle and mostly irresistible. There’s nothing particularly new here, but the formula is exceedingly well-executed enough that you won’t mind (or at least I didn’t), and is generally affecting without being sappy or manipulative.

The film stars Cusack as recently widowed science-fiction writer David Gordon, whose agent (Oliver Platt) keeps pressuring him to write a sequel to his one big hit, “Dracoban.” After a particularly poignant visit to his wife’s grave, and being told by his friend-who-kinda-sorta-becomes-more (Amanda Peet) that he still has much love to give, David makes the decision to adopt a kid. The kid, Dennis (Bobby Coleman), seems to think he’s from Mars, which David finds to be a perfect match for him, despite his sister (Joan Cusack) warning him about the hazards of such a situation. Though the movie briefly toys with the “K-Pax”-esque notion that Dennis might actually be from Mars, it smartly doesn’t pursue it, establishing fairly early that he’s just a weird kid with issues (though the words “disturbed” and “autistic” are notably never used). The film mostly just focuses on David and Dennis bonding and getting to know each other, with David slowly trying to coax Dennis out of his alien defensiveness.

The film’s first hour completely gets by on the charm and chemistry between Cusack and Coleman, before it establishes an upcoming foreboding custody hearing (you knew there had to be one, right?). Thankfully, that stuff is gotten out of the way fairly quickly, and the film begins to address the real potential problems with raising a troubled kid. For anyone who’s ever seen the 1994 Albert Brooks-Brendan Fraser vehicle “The Scout” (to be fair, there’s not many of us), “Martian Child” has a startlingly similar story arc, right down to a suspenseful climax on the roof of a tall building.

What I most appreciated about “Martian Child” was the lack of sap on top of everything, usually par for the course in a movie like this. Opening with a shot of a kid getting hit in the face hard by a kickball and featuring an adorable, endearing montage utilizing “Mr. Blue Sky” (nicely contrasting a similar-but-odorous one in “The Game Plan”), the film offers enough whimsical, sweet touches that offset the potential for sugar-and-sentiment overload. While I question the rushed finale (did we need “Blue Sky” played again, AND a new puppy?), the film builds up enough goodwill before then that it didn’t bother me.

The film’s chief message is to maintain one’s originality and “be yourself.” An admirable message for children, yes, and the film pushes it numerous times, but in the one truly bad scene, it goes a little overboard. At a party-- which admittedly includes a funny Chairman Mao joke-- celebrating David’s upcoming book, he tells his publisher (Anjelica Huston, in a cameo) that he’ll be writing an original book and not a sequel to his past hit, and she responds villainously with “Why can’t you just be what we want you to be?” Hey, maybe they needed to hammer it home for the cheap seats, but I don’t think I was the only person in the theater smacking their head.

What ultimately sells the movie are the performances by the two leads. Cusack plays David as fairly flaw-free, but not an unrealistic saint. His immense charm and believable earnestness are ever-present here, and he handles the emotional content (including an extended crying scene) just as well as his endearing bonding with Dennis. Though I could see some pigeonholing Coleman as a typical “cute kid” with missing baby teeth, I was really impressed with his debut work here. He’ll get his fair share of “awww”s—kid actors always do—but this most definitely isn’t an “Ain’t I cute” performance. He makes us believe in this jarringly strange kid, and I for one would happily an embrace a sequel where we get to see these two together again.

Anyone who has even a slight aversion to these sorts of films should probably steer clear; this isn’t the one that’s going to turn you around. Give the trailer a look, and judge accordingly—it’s a pretty accurate representation. But even so, “Martian Child,” while somewhat familiar, caught me off-guard in its intrinsic ability to charm without making me groan or roll my eyes. It’s unfairly being dumped this weekend (sure to be crushed by its main competitor, “Bee Movie”), but this is an endearing movie that deserves to find an audience, even if it has to wait for DVD to do so.


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