Kids: they keep coming at you like mosquitoes, sucking the life out of you.
— Liz (Joan Cusack)
Little Dennis (Bobby Coleman) lives in a big box from Amazon.com. He fears the sun, his ghastly pallor indicating just how infrequently he’s seen it during his short six years of life. He eats Lucky Charms, avoids contact with his fellow orphans, and believes he’s from Mars.
In case you’re in slightest danger of missing the point, Dennis’ box is marked “Fragile.” He’s a damaged, sad child, just waiting to be saved. Lucky for him, Martian Child has exactly this sort of plot in mind for him. He has already been recommended to David (John Cusack) by a social worker, Sophie (Sophie Okonedo). It happens that David is a popular science fiction writer who also considers himself an alien, underscored in his opening scene, a TV interview in which he explains his relationship to his characters: “I’m not the human,” he says, the camera pushing in past the “extraterrestrial” set to show his own sad face. “I’m the creature.”
He’s a creature who’s thinking about adopting. It’s been two years since his perfect wife died, and he means to honor her memory by fulfilling a dream they once shared. Still, Dennis is daunting: as much as David believes in his own sense of alienation and loss, he can’t fathom what has made the boy such a “freaky little dude.” The movie doesn’t provide much in the way of detail, but then, Dennis is less a character than a metaphor — for David’s needs and also for “children” in a tediously general sense: always new visitors to earth, they must figure out how to fit in. Dennis’ initial efforts to express his fear and isolation are only slightly more extreme than most.
After a visit to the center where Dennis has his box (where a helpful fellow orphan observes, “He’s a weirdo, he doesn’t have any friends”), David seeks advice from his sister Liz (Joan Cusack), mother of two and married to her own seeming alien, a fellow who shows up for about two minutes on screen, at Christmastime. She’s wry and funny, self-deprecating and self-assured, and she insinuates that maybe David isn’t ready to adopt. Her boys, she asserts, “drive me nuts and they’re mine. Parenting is really hard. You need at least two people.” Besides, she adds, she’s been doing some reading: “You could have a kid of rage.”
What David ends up with is a kid of fear, reworked in the human world as a kid who doesn’t fit in, who is teased and rejected, despondent and abandoned. Because David was also “weird and had problems,” as Liz terms it, he makes a particular investment in Dennis, believing he can save him, or at least give him a safe place to be weird. “Just think of it as a bigger box,” David offers, as Dennis enters his very fine and sculptural home for the first time.
The problems that come with this pairing are predictable and worse, occasions for drippy montages. They shop for groceries (that is, a cart full of cereal because, David explains to the checker with the arched eyebrow, “We’re Lucky Charms guys”), squirt each other with dish soap, and play a little baseball with David’s incipient romantic interest Harlee (Amanda Peet). She wears adorably mismatched outfits, keeps David company at his wife’s grave, and sees Dennis as an “old soul,” or maybe a “little Andy Warhol.” While David muses that he has the “same social skills” as the infamously frightened genius, Dennis provides a bit of antic entertainment, putting his face into the sucking end of the vacuum cleaner because, David sighs, he believes he is the vacuum cleaner.
David tolerates Dennis’ dysfunction in hopes that he will eventually succumb to “earth rules.” The kid steals knick-knacky objects (keys, photos, David’s driver’s license), insisting they’re necessary for his mission, to study earthlings. A teacher takes a dimmer view, objecting to the stealing of classmates’ pencils. “He’s a sweet little guy,” she sighs, “but he’s not like the others,” as you notice a portrait of George “No Child Left Behind” Bush peering over her shoulder in the classroom (again, you get it: conforming to arbitrary and universal standards is not all it’s cracked up to be). When she kicks Dennis out of school, David thinks maybe a bit more socializing is in order. Though he prefers to help Dennis to “be who he is” (whoever that may be), David concedes that living in the world means passing tests put to you by social workers and other authorities (including publishers who hold your contracts), answering questions in ways that allow you to pass as human even when you feel, you know, alien.
Based on David Gerrold’s semi-autobiographical novella, the movie digs its thematic hole early, and never finds a way out. David and Dennis are made to feel “different” and under scrutiny from jump, in part because the child is troubled and in part because, as Liz notes, “Single men are at the bottom of the totem pole” when it comes to state-sanctioned adoptions. The embodiment of this official resistance is Dr. Lefkowitz (Richard Schiff), who grumbles and mumbles and shows up at David’s house unexpectedly, just in time to see father-and-son-bonding in the form of joyful dish-breaking (stemming from a much-needed lesson in the insignificance of material objects). Tsk-tsk, glowers the doctor, as he announces he will be moving the case “up for review.”
Oh no! And just as Dennis is “learning how to be a human and part of a family.” Not to mention, before David’s education in the alien metaphor is complete. David must also brave a showdown with his imperious publisher, the British-accented Tina (Anjelica Huston, vamping appropriately). She’s expecting him to hand in the MS for the sequel for which she paid him a handsome advance. When he balks, believing that he can write something original and personal, she snarls on cue: “I want a Harry Bloody Potter in space!” Looking wholly out of place at the upscaley party intended to celebrate the book he didn’t write, suddenly David sees himself anew, an interplanetary visitor amid so-called humans. And again, just in case you’re not getting the point yet, David must endure yet another restatement of it, courtesy of Tina: “Why can’t you just be what we want you to be?” Sigh.
“Fantasy is my business,” David says early on, by way of explaining his special insight into Dennis. It’s considerably less fun as a vocation than an escape route, a way to make the world suit your own view, as children are so wonderfully capable of doing. While David imagines other worlds for profit, Martian Child crash-lands on this one.