In the cutesy new family drama "Martian Child," directed by Cusack's "Max" director Menno Meyjes, the love at stake is father-son rather than romantic, but Cusack is as convincing as ever in the devotion department. He plays David, a science fiction writer who throws himself into adoptive parenting with a zeal worthy of Lloyd Dobler.
Actually, David is essentially a middle-age version of Lloyd. While science fiction writing appears more lucrative than Lloyd's pursuit of kick boxing would have been, it's still a pursuit born of boyish pleasures. David has the same type of sister Lloyd did -- harried with kids, sarcastic but loving -- again played by Cusack's real sibling (Joan Cusack).
Finally, the love of David's life was, like Diane Court in "Say Anything," a woman with a strong social conscience, who he believed to be his superior. Looking over these similarities, it seems likely that nostalgia for Lloyd, and liking for Cusack, may be what makes this transparently manipulative film bearable.
As the movie opens, David's wife has been dead two years -- widowers are hot this fall; see "Dan in Real Life" -- and he is considering adopting. A social worker (Sophie Okonedo) offers him a crack at the allegedly most-challenging child in the foster-care pool, a little boy named Dennis (Bobby Coleman), who thinks he's from Mars.
Much is made of Dennis' difficulties, including his propensities for stealing and spending his waking hours inside a cardboard box. Dennis has been abandoned and, though cute and smart, is regarded as hopelessly "weird" by the other children in the foster system, who, incidentally, all look like Grade A adoption material.
It's hard to take this look at foster care and adoption seriously, although maybe we're not meant to. This movie isn't content with a happy ending; it wants to sustain a feel-good quality throughout (a far cry from the poignant reality of "The Italian," the excellent Russian film about adoption released earlier this year). "Martian Child" is based on science fiction writer David Gerrold's novel, which was inspired by his own adoption, as a single gay man, of a boy named Dennis. David and Dennis may have struggled mightily in real life, but this is movie land, where every obstacle seems infinitely surmountable (and apparently, it is more marketable to be widowed, rather than gay).
Yet David's wise-cracking sister, his agent (Oliver Platt) and the gruff adoption caseworker (Richard Schiff) continue to openly doubt this new family's future. Given what we've observed, including David's desire to make this work, their doomsday gloom seems inappropriate and insensitive. So the kid smears his face with sunscreen. He's not exactly burning down David's sleek, modern house or abusing his ancient golden retriever. Moreover, as the dead wife's conveniently adorable best friend (Amanda Peet) points out, David hasn't been this happy in a long, long time.
When the camera pans to him, there's a fraction of something in Cusack's naturally neutral face that convinces us this is true. What a salesman.
Reach Mary F. Pols at firstname.lastname@example.org or 925-945-4741.
Starring: John Cusack, Bobby Coleman, Amanda Peet, Richard Schiff, Joan Cusack, Oliver Platt
Director: Menno Meyjes
Rated: PG for thematic elements and mild language
Opens today: Bay Area theaters
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes