My pro-Cusack philosophy no doubt enhances my appreciation of "Martian Child," in which he plays a widower who adopts a peculiar young boy. The story has the makings of a sappy, manipulative "family film," and maybe it is one. I proudly state that I do not care. It's sweet and lovely and honest, and it made me laugh and cry, and John Cusack and the little boy, Bobby Coleman, are fantastic, and I want them to move next door and be my brother and nephew, respectively.
Cusack plays David, a successful fantasy novelist whose big hit is being made into a movie, while his publisher is chomping at the bit for a sequel. David likes the fantasy genre because he was an odd child and feels a kinship with the strange creatures of his imagination.
His wife died two years ago, and they were childless. Now he has started thinking about adopting, and a young orphan named Dennis is deemed a perfect fit. Dennis claims to be from Mars. He dislikes the sun and hides from it on cloudless days by sitting under a cardboard box on the playground. He wears a weight belt to counteract the Earth's relatively weak gravity. David writes about Martians; Dennis is a Martian. It's ideal!
Dennis' Martian fantasies are a coping mechanism, of course, to guard against his abandonment issues. David's task is to make him feel safe enough to let his defenses down -- to love him so much that he feels comfortable being an Earthling.
Bless Dennis' little heart! And bless David's little heart for wanting to help him! Bless everyone's heart, including director Menno Meyjes (who worked with Cusack on "Max") and David Gerrold, on whose novel the film is based. (In the novel, David was gay. I guess the adapters didn't want to open that can of worms, and made him a straight widower instead.) Though the material lends itself to trite platitudes, most of the film rings true.
OK, there is a scene where David, frustrated at not being able to get Dennis to give up the Martian thing, has an epiphany after his publisher yells at him, "Why can't you just be what we want you to be?!" That's a forced and obvious summary of the movie's theme. Also, I'm not sure the character of Harlee (Amanda Peet) -- David's wife's best friend and David's possible new love interest -- even needs to be in the movie, since David is still in mourning and doesn't need a new romance. But apart from THAT, most of the film rings true.
I'm glad to report that the story is not about whether David gets to keep Dennis. I feared it was going that way, with a worried child welfare officer (Richard Schiff) expressing concern about David's more-friend-than-father parenting techniques. (The fact that Richard Schiff played the same role in "I Am Sam," which WAS about whether the dad gets to keep the kid, made me even more nervous.) Thankfully, that issue is resolved, leaving the movie to focus on its real issues of parental love and acceptance.
Someone reassures David that "all parents feel like they're the blind leading the blind." His sister, Liz (played by his real sister, Joan Cusack), thinks he's crazy for adopting a kid with issues. Thinking he's a Martian is a big red flag, she says, and she's right. But David is such a loving and thoughtful person -- such a good person -- that he wants to help anyway.
I think that's why I like the movie so much. David and Dennis are kindred spirits, both outsiders from mainstream society, and both inherently decent and full of love. You feel invested in them. You want them to be happy, and it's no spoiler to say that the movie ends happily. The joy is in seeing them work their way toward it.