Thursday, February 7, 2008

Out Tuesday - Martian Child. (*****5/10)



Martian Child is coming out Tuesday on DVD from Alliance Atlantis. It's worth watching with your kids, if your kids are having a tough time adjusting at school, or if they are just plain really weird. But as an adult, it is just plain not worth watching. It starts out with a laudable premise, and then degenerates into the sort of movie sentimentality that would make John Wayne beat the living crap out of Hugh Grant and John Cusack were he still alive, God rest his violent macho soul. I now feel confident that this review will break new ground, as it is sure to be the only review of Martian Child that mentions The Duke. So, on with the review. Martian Child is a movie along very similar lines to K-Pax, the Kevin Spacey movie where Spacey plays a man who may or may not be from outer space. Although K-Pax was not that good, it is still far better than Martian Child. John Cusack is a single father (a fantasy writer) who adopts a boy who believes he comes from Mars. This movie obviously wants us to wonder, at least for a time...is he? Isn't he? Where does he come from? Maybe, just maybe, he is from Mars.

K-Pax did the same thing. And not that either plot is within the realm of likelihood or believability. But if you want to make the case that someone is from outer space, possibly an alien being, then choose K-Pax. Not Mars. We have heard of Mars. We know where it is. We can see it with our naked eyes on certain days. It is the most familiar planet to all of us. We know that there is no life on Mars, and certainly no small-child-shaped life. Pictures like the one above notwithstanding. Therefore, we know the answer right away, and even if we were to suspend our disbelief for the sake of the story, we would have a hard time buying in. There are scenes that try to convince us otherwise. A baseball scene, a traffic light scene, a scene with some M&Ms, that are basically red herrings in a movie that cries out for no red herrings.

In the end, the movie is about John Cusack's relationship with his adopted son, and it gets this mostly right. When he adpots the boy, he believes very strongly that he is from Mars. (The boy does. Not John Cusack. Or us.) The kid is extremely weird, and Cusack tries to cope as best he can, using sappy talk like never, never, never, never, ever give up and such like. Their relationship seems to hit a breakthrough, and the kid goes (extremely suddenly) from barely ever speaking to laughing and joking and having a good time. We believe that Cusack cares, we believe the boy likes him, and then the Children's Aid people show up. These people have just given the child to Cusack. They know he believes he is from Mars. And now they want to review his case, because they may have to take the child away. There has to be some kind of huge problem like this at this point in every movie. The review is taking place maybe six weeks after Cusack gets the boy to begin with. And if he still believes he is from Mars, he will be removed from the home. OK...here's a kid with obvious problems, serious social and mental issues, and if you, the foster parent, can't cure him of those problems completely within six weeks, he's gone.

There may well be some super-parent out there who could have effected this change that quickly. But I have not met that super-parent, nor, I wager, has anyone else. But, that is the conflict that must arise at the one hour and ten minute mark of the movie, so arise it does. Other characters populate the movie, including Olvier Platt, who is obnoxious, Joan Cusack, who is in every John Cusack movie so that she gets work playing - go figure - his sister, who is irritating and looks as though she went on the no-food-plus-lots-of-heroin diet to weigh in at a feisty 49 pounds, and Anjelica Huston. Huston plays Cusack's publisher and delivers the one, painful line that drops this movie off the cliff of heartwarming into the sludge of Hollywood sentimentality and schmaltz: "Why can't you just be what we want you to be?" COME ON! This leads, inexorably and annoyingly, to a final scene straight out of the worst Hitchcock imitator's reject pile, a chase and a confrontation on top of an observatory.

John Cusack is a very likeable guy. It is tough not to LIKE his character in this movie. When the kid finally comes out of his Martian shell a little bit, it is tough not to like him as well. But there isn't one other character in the film that is easy to like, and whatever points the movie scores with us in terms of a connection between the man and the boy are destroyed and wasted as soon as Anjelica Huston says "why can't you be what we want you to be" and Cusack has an epiphany and runs home from his big gala event to tell the boy that all is forgiven and...whatever. A movie with high ideals such as this one can't be crammed into that Hollywood cookie-cutter of "this happens here. This sets off that". It's like you're Rembrandt. And you have this great idea for a painting called Belshazzar's Feast. And you start to paint it, but your boss tells you that paintings have only three people in them, tops, and crowns don't go on top of Turbans, and you'll have to make that writing on the wall English so the people reading it can understand. Would you still paint the picture? I'm guessing not.

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