The oddest thing happened as I started to watch Martian Child. The movie opens with John Cusack narrating ... or at least it was supposed to be Cusack. But the voice triggered a sense of deja vu: I'd heard it before, but not out of this particular actor's mouth. When his character started talking about his latest science-fiction novel, suddenly I figured it out, and it was freaky: I was seeing John Cusack and hearing Albert Brooks (who also played a sf author, in Mother). The sensation was uncanny, and almost impossible to shake. During the slower parts of this movie, I found myself wondering whether Cusack had some kind of secret chronic throat ailment and had been dubbed by Brooks.
Perhaps if the movie had engaged me more, I would have forgotten about the weird voice thing as the story progressed. Unfortunately, Martian Child never drew me in, although some scenes made me laugh and the cast was terrific. The movie was directed by Menno Meyjes, who also worked with Cusack in the 2002 film Max, and was based on a semi-autobiographical novel by science-fiction writer David Gerrold (who wrote the Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles").
Martian Child focuses on author and widower David (Cusack, not Brooks) who is still getting over his wife's death. He and his wife had planned to adopt a child, but when the agency finally calls him, he's reluctant to raise a child alone. However, the hard-to-place Dennis (Bobby Coleman) catches his attention: the boy has decided that he's from the planet Mars, and spends the day in a large box (unsubtlly labeled "Fragile: Handle With Care" on the front), wearing sunscreen and sunglasses to protect him from Earth's harsh climate. Eventually he and David interest each other enough that David takes him home on a trial basis, subject to approval from social worker Lefkowitz (Richard Schiff).
I feel like I've seen this movie a dozen times already, most recently as No Reservations and Reign Over Me. An adult whose life is lacking in some way encounters a kid (or Adam Sandler) who is burdensome at first, but ends up filling the spiritual holes in the adult's life. The twist with Martian Child is that the child claims to be from Mars ... and who knows, maybe he is! But there's no real suspense here. On the other hand, you don't watch a movie like Martian Child for the suspense, you watch it for the touching and heartwarming relationships, basking in the warmth of the human spirit as mixed-up people coax others out of their shells, and all that kind of thing.
Martian Child succeeds more in bringing us comic elements than relationship drama, however. Cusack delivers his dialogue perfectly and the lines are often hilarious ... but too glib and artificial. It seems implausible that even a science-fiction author who lets few people into his inner sanctum would spout such long and clever sentences, especially to a small child. The characters don't seem like real people -- Dennis is just another adorably dysfunctional kid, and Amanda Peet is relegated to the stock role of the perky girl who might be a romantic interest. Joan Cusack is a lot more fun as David's sister Liz, a mother of two who is skeptical of the entire adoption endeavor, but who still tries to support her brother and show affection for Dennis.
How in the world did an otherwise undistinguished movie end up with such an incredible cast? It seemed like every 10 minutes, another familiar face would appear onscreen, sometimes for only a scene or two, but making you hope they'd stick around. Howard Hesseman has a single scene as an understanding psychiatrist. Sophie Okonedo and Oliver Platt have too-small roles. And near the end of the film, Anjelica Huston magically appears and nearly steals the movie. Why couldn't we see more of her and less of Amanda Peet? (In fact, imagine if Huston had Peet's role. Now that would be novel and interesting.)
Martian Child isn't a bad movie, but it isn't very interesting one either. Although not too dull to sit through without some enjoyment, it's forgettable within 24 hours of watching the movie. It's a lovely looking film, with gorgeous settings and photography -- the DP is Robert Yeoman, who's worked on Wes Anderson films. But Martian Child isn't emotionally involving enough even to be a shallow tearjerker. The Cat Stevens song on the soundtrack reminded me that I'd rather be watching Harold and Maude again, and overall, the movie made me want to watch John Cusack in something good -- maybe a Simpsons episode where he and Albert Brooks play brothers.