Running Time: 106 min
Rated: Rated PG (for thematic elements and mild language)
This movie is a comedy-drama version of a recent widower (David, played by John Cusack) who decides to adopt an odd child (Dennis, played by Bobby Coleman). Dennis insists he is from the planet Mars and David doesn't believe him. Cusack plays the role of an unsettled sci-fi writer who is blocking on his sequel, partly due to grief at the loss of his wife. The film is based on the award-winning story, "The Martian Child' by science fiction writer, David Gerrold. The science fiction theme is developed implicitly. The viewer is tempted by the odd scenes suggesting that maybe things are happening which show the child has special powers - like changing traffic lights and hitting baseball runs - but mostly it is about a developing relationship between a lonely widower and a problem kid whose imagination is out of control.
The film clearly aims to be metaphorical. The theme of passage from alienation to love and understanding is developed throughout, and the film flirts with serious philosophical issues such as how does one fit in with Society when one is really different, and what are the prices each of us has to pay for conformity to something we don't believe in. It argues that there is an aspect of "Mars' in all of us. Cusack handles the script smoothly and he fits well into the role of the blocked writer (who happens, not surprisingly, to write about the planet Mars) but virtually he is asked to carry the whole movie. The film suffers from the fact that Dennis is not really all that likeable. Bobby Coleman plays his role in a pouting, frustrating and attention-getting way. Ancillary characters in the film such as David's loyal sister (played by Joan Cusack) and an over-understanding girl friend, played by Amanda Peet don't help all that much. As a result, the film runs the gamut of emotions from sentimentality to genuine bonding. There are a few scenes of real holding-power such as the mimed dancing between David and Dennis and the scenes on the ledge at the end of the movie where the bond between man and child finally overcomes the fantasy. However, mostly the film misses and it is hard at times to know why. Is it the serial philosophizing about human emotions, is it the tensions between fantasy and reality that constantly re-appear, or is it the off-key performance of Bobby Coleman who never justifies the attachment that Cusack has to feel for him? It is an erratic movie, trying to live out several goals that don't sit harmoniously with each other.
Nevertheless, there are good things about the movie, and it is worth seeing. They rest mostly in Cusack's performance and a brief cameo appearance at the end of Anjelica Huston as the awe-inspiring Tina who holds David to his promise to write.
At a surface level, this is a warm and understanding film about the attachment between parent and child and the importance of love and being different in the human equation. It is morally sound, likeable, and suitable for nearly all. At a more contemplative level, however, it might have been much better than it is and this lies in the failure of its metaphorical soundings. The film's Director, Menno Meyjes, who adapted "The Color Purple' for the screen can't seem to escape the movie's essential sentimentality. Against the sentimentality, however, Cusack shines.
Village RoadshowOut February 21, 2008.
Peter W Sheehan, is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.