Full disclosure: David Gerrold and I have chewed with our mouths open in front of each other. We’ve broken bread together a few times. He has heard me burp. I consider him a friend. So when I heard that they were making a movie out of his touching novella The Martian Child, I was excited but a little apprehensive… Just how much would Hollywood screw it up?
The novella is an award-winning, semi-autobiographical story of a gay sci-fi author adopting a “special needs” emotionally wounded child who believes he’s from Mars.
I took my apprehensions with me to a special screening of the film Tuesday night. I had heard they’d “straightwashed” the author, turned him from a single gay man to a straight widower. I smelled sellout, and of course I surmised that the studio wanted this to be a movie for middle American families, and as such, they believed that “normal” middle Americans wouldn’t cotton to a story of a gay man adopting a child. Yes, I am cynical.
But my apprehensions were unfounded. The change in the character actually served to highlight a very important dimension to the story — that the author was just as wounded by the loss of his wife as was the child by his lack of a family. The heart of the story is two wounded people reaching out to the universe and finding each other. So I can forgive the change, because it keeps intact the emotional core of my friend’s book.
Alas, the movie opens with what could have been a scene from my own life — the author as a child, at the mercy of bullies, retreating into sci-fi worlds of fantasy as an escape mechanism, a lifeboat from life.
The movie then flashes forward to the author explaining what all writers know, that in every story he writes at least one character is himself. But in author “David Gordon’s” sci fi novel, he is the alien, the creature, just as he feels he is the alien in the real world.
Oh boy. The movie is not about David Gerrold and his son… it’s about me! I suspect this will resonate with so many of us who feel the same way sometimes.
“David” is still mourning, two years later, the loss of his wife. And what does he find? A small child who believes he also is an alien; but the child’s belief is his entire world, his whole existence. The sun is too bright. He has special powers to protect himself from an alien world. He must wear a “holding down belt” to keep Mars’ gravity from pulling him back.
The metaphor is, of course, obvious to us: there is no permanence, sometimes people who say they love you don’t, and sometimes people throw you away, and you can go floating helplessly away from all the comforts you know.
John Cusack is amazing, as always. His acting appears so effortless, and his underplaying here only serves to reveal the writer to us. The fact that he is onscreen in practically every scene makes the movie better.
Bobby Coleman, playing “Dennis,” is phenomenal. He was there at the screening, running around barefoot, and so different from the character he played on screen that one can see that this kid has mountains of acting talent.
Amanda Peet, in the potential love-interest role, is also terrific. Unfortunately, her character, not in the original story, is completely unnecessary here. Her part could have been excised and nothing would have changed. HOWEVER, there is one scene between her and Cusack where the characters almost begin to express their romantic interest in each other, and it’s so wonderfully underplayed and rewarding that Peet completely redeems her presence.
And of course, not enough can be said about Joan Cusack playing (one can assume stereotypically) the role of “David Gordon’s” sister. As expected, her scenes are lovely, and as always, she gets some of the best supporting-character lines.
Oliver Platt, Richard Schiff, and Howard Hesseman (seen too briefly) all shine. But most soulful, even in her short screen time, is Sophie Okonedo as the director of the home where Bobby is staying at the beginning of the movie.
Moviegoers who don’t like schmaltz may not enjoy the film… EXCEPT that ALL of the performances, even from the supporting players, are so excellent and so enjoyable that the schmaltz is digestible. This is well-made schmaltz, and there’s a place in the world for it, my friends.
The film is filled with many wonderful moments — John Cusack explaining how one can become a superstar in baseball with only a “little” extra effort; a speech about how the real world is plenty weird enough without having to be from Mars; and, in what almost appears to be a throwaway, a scene in which “Bobby Coleman” does a little Martian dance. Probably the most memorable scene in the whole movie.
Some critics have complained the biggest fault here is that the film is a little too obvious with its message. There is only one line I felt was over the top — that of Anjelica Huston in a cameo as David’s publisher complaining, “Why can’t you just be what we want you to be?” But Cusack plays his reaction so well that the sledgehammer to our heads is excusable and the headache quickly fades.
Bottom line: This is a touching family film with a very big heart on its sleeve. Yes, it’s schmaltz. But this is damn good schmaltz. And the story is based on some real people who are just as wonderful as the way they’re portrayed. So skip the overhyped blockbusters this weekend, and go see The Martian Child, and walk out of the theater feeling a little better than went you went in.
And on the way home, pick up a few boxes of Lucky Charms.