Martians have landed, or at least one Martian. Instead of slimy and tentacled as in “The War of the Worlds,” this Martian is cuddly, adorable and just troubled enough that John Cusack can’t help but want to kiss away his psychological boo-boos and play dad to him.
“Martian Child” is the first of two single-parenting dramas Cusack has coming in short order. The second, “Grace Is Gone,” is a heartbreaker, with Cusack a newly widowed dad struggling to break the news to his young daughters that mom’s been killed in action in Iraq.
“Grace Is Gone” can wring real tears from viewers, the sort you might be fighting back for days. “Martian Child” can squeeze out Hollywood sniffles, the gooey sort that’ll be gone and forgotten by the time you reach the theater parking lot.
To borrow a line from Mr. Potter, the richest and meanest man in town in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Martian Child” is sentimental hogwash.
But hogwash redeemed to an extent by the soothing, compassionate father-son dynamic Cusack strikes with his favorite Martian, 10-year-old Bobby Coleman, whose previous credits include Cusack’s “Must Love Dogs.”
Coleman plays Dennis, an orphan whose abandonment issues have traumatized him to the point that the boy is convinced he’s a Martian on an information-gathering mission to Earth.
The kid spends his days inside a giant cardboard box to shield himself from harmful solar rays. (Earth’s closer to the sun than Mars, you see, so it’s perfectly logical.)
Enter science fiction writer and former child misfit David Gordon (Cusack), a widower who’s talking with the overseers of Dennis’ group home as he mulls whether to follow through on the dream he and his late wife had to adopt a child.
With all the plot contrivances in place, David and Dennis naturally form an immediate connection. David brings the boy sunglasses and sunblock, before long he coaxes Dennis out of his box, and the next thing you know, David takes Dennis home in a trial run that could lead to legal adoption.
They stumble through awkward growing pains. They share tender moments. They act out in anger. They bond in mischievous, cathartic destruction of dinnerware and other breakables.
And they lure the audience to an inevitably sappy climax.
Cusack and Coleman are on screen together most of the movie, and the fact that they don’t completely overstay their welcome amid the maudlin action says a lot for the restraint they bring to the characters.
The same holds for director Menno Meyjes, who follows the over-the-top young Hitler saga “Max” that starred Cusack and Noah Taylor with this more moderate piece of melodrama.
David and Dennis are surrounded by a predictable passel of supporters and obstacles. The star’s real-life sister, Joan Cusack, plays his sibling, who henpecks him about the hardships of parenting, while Amanda Peet co-stars as an old friend gradually morphing into a potential new love for David.
Sophie Okonedo plays a social worker rooting for David and Dennis, Richard Schiff’s an adoption official skeptical about whether they can form a family, and Oliver Platt’s a literary agent pressing David on the sequel to his sci-fi best-seller. Anjelica Huston, Cusack’s co-star in “The Grifters,” pops up briefly as David’s editor.
Maintaining his usual likably aloof persona, Cusack cracks the door open a bit on some genuine human warmth, a nice introduction to his far superior and more authentic performance in “Grace Is Gone.”
Speaking in whispers for much of the time, Coleman gets a bit creepy, as if he’s impersonating Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense.” But his innate cuteness always shows through to offset Dennis’ strangeness.
Adapted by screenwriters Seth E. Bass and Jonathan Tolins, “Martian Child” is based on the book by David Gerrold, best known for the “Star Trek” episode “The Trouble With Tribbles.”
Tribbles were little fluff balls that cooed their way into the hearts of the starship Enterprise crew, only to breed so prodigiously they overwhelmed the vessel. The excess continues with “Martian Child,” which overwhelms with a different kind of fluff.