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Martian Child: Space case

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John Cusack is shaping up as the Gene Hackman of his generation, an actor who radiates inner calm even when his characters are going out of their minds. It makes him very easy to be around, and it comes in handy in Martian Child, where he plays a guy whose bottomless patience is constantly being tested. He's David Gordon, a successful sci-fi novelist who still hasn't gotten over the death of his wife two years ago. Looking for someone to love, he lands on Dennis (Bobby Coleman), a six-year-old orphan who's running out of cute years. What you call a special-needs child, Dennis has abandonment issues, and they've taken the form of insisting that he's really from Mars, here on a mission to learn as much as he can about our lonely planet. David is soon smitten. He's never gotten to hang out with a real-live Martian before.

You can pretty much figure out where everything goes from there. Dennis learns how to act like an Earthling, and David learns how to act like a parental unit. In other words, it's About a Boy, only with less at stake since David bends over backwards to convince Dennis he won't be sent back, no matter how weird he acts. The movie flirts with the possibility that Dennis is what he says he is, endowing him with such special powers as being able to distinguish the tastes of various M&M colors. (A nod to E.T.'s Reese's Pieces?) And maybe it should have run with the idea more, gone the whole Spielberg route. We're supposed to salute the power of the imagination, its ability to take us to a better place. The problem is, the movie leaves little to our imaginations. We're stranded back here on Earth.

The kid's adorable, though, in a slightly creepy way. And Cusack does his usual job of maintaining his sanity while all those around him are losing theirs. Joan Cusack, his real-life sister, plays his reel-life sister, and they have some nice scenes together - rapport so effortless you wonder whether they even had to rehearse. Cusack has a lot to give as an actor, but you have to question some of his recent choices: Must Love Dogs, Serendipity, America's Sweethearts. Is this what became of Say Anything's Lloyd Dobler? He succumbed to Hollywood sentiment? Next up for Cusack: Grace Is Gone, where he plays an Iraq War widower forced to raise two daughters on his own. If he keeps this up, he's a shoo-in for Father of the Year.

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