Don Cheadle has a neat, and apt, summation of the stages of a film career: "The first stage is 'Who the hell is Don Cheadle?' The second is 'Get me Don Cheadle.' The third is 'Get me a Don Cheadle type.' The fourth is 'Get me a young Don Cheadle,' and the last is again 'Who the hell is Don Cheadle?”
With all the progress John Cusack has made in his career, what is he doing now playing what Cheadle would call “a John Cusack type"? Cusack has been on the verge for several years of escaping Lloyd Dobler once and for all, and with December’s Grace is Gone, he finally seems poised to pull it off. Martian Child however, is a complete retread: Cusack playing Cusack, except this time he’s got a kid in tow. At least it’s coming out before Grace is Gone, so it won’t be called a step backwards for the star, who really does deserve a hit.
Martian Child is based loosely on a story by science fiction writer David Gerrold, about his adoption of an eccentric young boy. Gerrold is single and gay, but since this is Hollywood Cusack’s version is a widower, having begun the adoption process before his wife’s death. Ready to quit wallowing David goes through with the adoption process and winds up with Dennis (Bobby Coleman), a boy who spends his time in a refrigerator box (since he’s allergic to the sun) and wears a weight belt made of batteries (since, without it, the Earth’s gravity would not hold him down). David is a science fiction writer after all, so these quirks appeal to him, despite warnings from his sister (Joan Cusack), slacker agent (Oliver Platt), and a stern adoption agency employee (Richard Schiff) that he has to eventually help Dennis learn to live among the earthlings.
The one person supporting David in his efforts is his wife’s friend Harlee (Amanda Peet), and wouldn’t you know it a love connection comes about by the end. The fact that Harlee and David barely spend any time together on screen doesn’t matter, because that romantic subplot has to find its way in there somehow, dammit. In fact, nearly all of Martian Child takes place off-screen, with the film hitting the high points—spirited bonding! tearful fighting!—and leaving us to fill in the emotional development. David tells Dennis to “stop saying that” when he asks “Was I bad?” but we’ve never heard Dennis say it before. Director Menno Meyjes doesn’t want us to join David on his emotional journey, but just trust Cusack to report back all the relevant details.
Cusack and Coleman play well off each other as father and son, but you get the sense that their interactions would be a lot more fun to watch if we got to see their relationship progress naturally, rather than being crammed into an awkward plot about “being true to yourself” and “learning to love again.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that of course, but other movies have done it better. With the sci-fi element so glossed over and confused as to be almost irrelevant, Martian Child is just a generic version of any other dramatic comedy about familial love—that is to say, not terribly interesting. Hang on until Grace is Gone, when hopefully we’ll finally see a project worthy of Cusack’s talents.