That isn’t to say Martian Child doesn’t get to you every once in a while. It starts off with science-fiction writer David Gordon (John Cusack) telling an audience what a geek he was as a kid. Now of course he’s fabulously successful but he still feels a little like an outsider—and he is certainly not at all fulfilled. You see David has recently lost his wife and in trying to grasp at something meaningful he is contemplating adopting a child. Not just any child mind you—David wants Dennis (Bobby Coleman) a young orphaned boy who spends his days in a box and claims to be from Mars. Seems like a match made in heaven right? Not exactly. The odd youngster proves to be a tad overwhelming for the single dad especially when some of the weird stuff Dennis does actually makes sense. Is he really an alien? David wonders just that and in doing so gradually finds himself growing more attached to the boy and experiencing the transformational power of parental love. Like many other TV movies-of-the-week that masquerade as feature films by using bigger star power Martian Child has John Cusack in its corner. The actor tries his darnedest to do something different with the part playing David with much earnestness and honesty. David gets a lot of things wrong in his attempts to be a dad but his warmth and kindness towards the boy never waver--although I think the Cusack performance we should be looking forward to is his dad in the upcoming Grace Is Gone. Coleman (Must Love Dogs) also does some fascinating things as the strange little Dennis—once you get past his very high-pitched gravelly voice. The young actor plays Dennis with the right amount of weirdness and sadness as a little boy just looking to be loved. The rest of the supporting characters are unfortunately written with every cliché in mind so the actors playing them can’t really shine including Joan Cusack as David’s disapproving—and then approving—sister; Amanda Peet as David’s old friend who exudes enthusiasm ad nauseaum; and Richard Schiff as the child social services shrink who doesn’t think David can be a good single parent. There always has to be a party pooper. Apparently Martian Child sat on the shelf for a little while before being released. It could be because there isn’t really anything compelling about the film save for a few moments any normal emotional person would get choked up about. Dutch director Menno Meyjes who also directed John Cusack in the little-seen Hitler drama Max just doesn’t use enough of his imagination in Martian Child. There are endless possibilities especially since David writes science fiction and Dennis believes he is from Mars. More star gazing perhaps? Fantasy sequences in which Dennis talks to his comrades in space? Alas no. Instead Martian Child plods along its merry little predictable way. You know I’m not a director but sometimes I feel I could do a lot of the same work for a lot less money.
It's 1918 in Munich and Germany has just suffered the humiliating defeat of the Great War. Max Rothman (John Cusack) a once-promising artist has returned from the war minus an arm and unable to paint. But he is a wealthy man one of vision and generous spirit and he opens what becomes a successful gallery in the hopes of furthering the talents of others and exploring emerging trends in art. His personal life in a cultured and assimilated Jewish family is less settled as he juggles responsibilities as husband father and son and indulges in the pleasures of Liselore his mistress. At one of his gallery openings Max meets the young Adolph Hitler (Noah Taylor) also a war vet and painter. But Hitler as artist is frustrated and unrecognized; he's a bitter and destitute loner without friends family or money. In other words he's ready to blame his failures and misery on others so why not the Jews? In spite of their differences Hitler and Rothman grow friendlier if not friendly. Rothman's artistic tastes veer toward the avant-garde and Hitler's toward traditionalism but they share common views about the recent war. Rothman is game so he takes Hitler's work on consignment. But while appreciating Hitler's sketches he ultimately rejects the work. Falling under the influence of an anti-Semitic army captain Hitler learns he's skilled at oratory. Instinctively knowing how to play to a crowd and tapping into his own fury he wins over an audience of anti-Semites with anti-Jewish rhetoric at a beer hall meeting. Having experienced both rejection and acceptance Hitler pursues an obvious course.
John Cusack is terrific as the wealthy Jewish gallery owner who befriends struggling artist Adolph Hitler. Noah Taylor as Hitler however delivers an overwrought performance that veers upon caricature striking some false notes. Not that Australian actor Taylor had an easy job of delivering the young Fuhrer but he plays the part too forced too mannered too theatrical. The role is thankless but surely some actor perhaps in the hands of another director might have delivered the goods. Other performances are fine including Leelee Sobieski as Max's mistress and vet actress Janet Suzman as his mother.
Writer-director Menno Meyjes who adapted The Color Purple for Steven Spielberg makes his directorial debut here. While Meyjes coaxes more than serviceable performances from his actors especially Cusack other decisions no doubt made by the filmmaker are questionable. Production values are solid but some aesthetic choices fall short especially the film's highly stylized sets that are more otherworldly than 1918 Munich. Meyjes gives us apocryphal sets like the artists' vast loft that is more 21st than 20th century that distance us from rather than immerse us in an interesting story suggested by history. Meyjes deserves much credit for daring to explore the psychology and circumstances that might have contributed to his pathology evil and power over the masses.