Even an increasingly friendly Roger Ebert recognized Martian Child for what it is: "bland and safe." "So bland and safe," he writes, "that it might appeal more directly to children than adults." And there's the rub. The PG-rated Martian Child is an old-fashioned family film, and though it panders shamelessly, it's not entirely unwelcome in a time when the PG movie is an endangered species. But Martian Child's family friendliness comes at a price ignored by just most reviewers. It does a fundamental injustice to its award-winning source material: David Gerrold's The Martian Child: A Novel About a Single Father Adopting a Son.
Writer-director Menno Meyjes and star John Cusack collaborated on Max, a fairly gutsy independent film about a young Adolf Hitler navigating the art world in 1918 Munich. Here, Meyjes is actually a director for hire, shooting a script by Seth E. Bass & Jonathan Tolins. Bass and Tolins previously adapted Tolins' play The Twilight of the Golds, about parents deciding whether or not to abort their unborn, most likely gay child. And, lo and behold, science-fiction writer Gerrold (author of Star Trek's "The Trouble with Tribbles") is gay, and his apprehension as a gay man navigating the adoption process is part of the fabric of his story.
Unlike Max, the long-aborning Martian Child wound up a studio film, and one senses that a potential gay protagonist is a casualty of a hard-fought battle. It wouldn't be seemly, New Line assumes, to put forward movie star Cusack as a gay single parent, and thus Amanda Peet is on hand as the best friend turned something more in an "aw shucks" subplot. Cusack plays a science-fiction writer named David (not gay, though—no sir—he's a widower!) who hesitantly considers fulfilling his late wife's dream of adoption ("I don't want to bring another kid into this world. But how do you argue against loving one that's already here?"). On a visit to an orphanage, he becomes taken with a whispery eight-year-old named Dennis (Bobby Coleman) who insists he's from Mars and not long for this world.
Tolins and Bass preserve some of the flavor and detail of Gerrold's memoir (a dog named Somewhere: he's never lost because he's always "Somewhere"), and in particular the purpose and anxiety felt by an insecure first-time parent adopting a small, troubled human being. When the going gets rough, what's he to do: "return him like a defective toaster?" But Martian Child's kitchen-sink insistence of trying a little bit of everything gives the film a disjointedness and a desperation. Outside of the central existential questions of living in the world with others, Meyjes feints at out-and-out comedy, romance, "they're taking my kid away" crisis, and physical crisis (a mawkish, incredible climax atop an observatory).
Some of the film's schizophrenic quality no doubt owes to reshoots by Jerry Zucker, and the Filofax of guest stars: Joan Cusack (as David's sister, natch), Oliver Platt as David's agent, Sophie Okonedo as the orphanage runner, Richard Schiff as the skeptical adoption-board head, Howard Hesseman as a psychologist, and Anjelica Huston as David's diva publisher, who asks the script-y ten-dollar question "Why can't you just be what we want you to be?" Kids will understand that sort of negative example, relate to Dennis' struggle to find his place, and fulfill their fondest wishes in the loving relationship between child and cool-dad Cusack. Adults, on the other hand, will be forgiven for rolling their eyes at the film's shameless sentimentality. Save Martian Child for a rainy day.
New Line offers a surprisingly thorough special edition for Martian Child, starting with an excellent feature presentation in anamorphic widescreen and 5.1 audio. The feature-length audio commentary lacks the participation of the director and stars, but benefits from a reasonably frank and engaging roundtable by producers Corey Sienega and David Kirschner, and writers Bass & Tolins. The disc includes a suite of fourteen wisely trimmed deleted/extended scenes: "Bullies" (:39), "I'm From Outer Space" (1:19), "On the Set of Drakoban" (3:36), "Transfobalmedial" (1:24), "I Am a Marsonian" (1:06), "Taunted" (:53), "Time to Eat" (:59), "Be a Good Spy" (4:46), "Be a Good Psychic" (2:23), "Family BBQ" (1:52), "Delicious & Nutritious" (1:04), "Elevator" (1:42), "Kiddie Vietnam" (4:33), and "Picture Perfect" (1:13). With a "Play All" feature, the scenes total twenty-seven minutes.
"Handle With Care: Working with the Martian Child" (24:20) is a making-of featurette with a special focus on Bobby Coleman: how he was found and how he worked with Meyjes, Cusack, and his highly involved parents. Coleman's audition tapes and family home videos are excerpted, as are rehearsal and on-set footage that help to detail the capturing of certain scenes. We learn, for example, that Coleman's father crucially stepped in for Cusack in the film's climactic scene, helping Coleman to get to the emotional place he needed to be. Coleman, Meyjes, Cusack, producers Sienega and Kirschner, costume designer Michael Dennison, and Coleman's father, mother, and sister go on the record.
The best bonus feature—"The Real Martian Child" (13:24)—features David and Sean Gerrold. Both are interviewed, along with producers Ed Elbert, Sienega, and Kirschner and screenwriters Tolins and Bass; the featurette happily provides some true-story background, warmly including Gerrold family photos, home videos, and anecdotes. Lastly, New Line includes the film's theatrical trailer (2:33) and "Sneak Peeks" for Run Fatboy Run, The Last Mimzy, Gracie, Hairspray, and August Rush.
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