Seldom has a movie sounded worse on paper than Martian Child. The trailer made it look like a hoary mélange of family comedy clichés with a high-concept story — equal parts About a Boy and K-Pax. What a relief, then, that the final product is flawed but highly engrossing, and not just grossly sweet. John Cusack stars as hotshot sci-fi author David, who is suddenly struck with massive writer's block and sent frantically scrambling for meaning after the death of his fiancee. The couple had plans to start a family, so that's just what he sets out to do, honoring her by adopting the weirdest kid he can find.
Abandoned Dennis (Bobby Coleman) talks in whispers, spends recess in a cardboard box, cakes on layers of sun block, and tapes weights to his ankles, to prevent himself from breaking Earth's gravity and floating back to his native Mars. Our little alien also likes to put Pepsi on his hot dogs, make profound observations and, like a floppy-haired E.T., works in a bit of product placement through his love of Lucky Charms cereal. The "plot" is basically David's long effort to shake off these accumulated barnacles of quirk and find the human child underneath, which entails searching for the necessary parenting tools locked inside himself. He's got all sorts of help, from his nervous Nellie sister Liz (played in a major stretch by Joan Cusack), and jovial agent Jeff (hammed up to the roof by Oliver Platt, in a role that once would have gone to Jeremy Piven). He also gets support from his late fiancee's best friend, Halee (Amanda Peet), who, in an unbelievable twist, happens to be patient, sweet, funny, available and … oh, hot.
In other hands this could have been dire. But director Menno Meyjes seems to know the difference between tugging your heartstrings and jerking your chain. At times, the script gets insufferably cutesy, but it also has enough insight, humor and bitterness to make the sickly sweet medicine go down. Tethering the whole thing is John Cusack's unfailing charisma. But he's not just cruising on charm. The kind of callow playboy part that Cusack has lived off for years is turned on its head here. The hipster from High Fidelity is finally domesticated and happy playing Little League dad, even if his kid is a weirdo.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.