There’s nothing wrong with a little fakery now and then if it smooths out some rough spots and eliminates some distractions. But this film goes past fakery into condescending phoniness that knocks the story off its tracks. What is frustrating is that it is so unnecessary and intrusive. We start out on the side of the characters, John Cusack as David, the grieving widower, a successful writer of science fiction, and Bobby Coleman as Dennis, a troubled orphan who spends all day in a cardboard box and says he comes from Mars. We want them to find a way to connect to each other. But every time the movie has a choice between what might really happen and ramping up the dramatic tension to raise the emotional stakes, it chooses the latter, until we begin to feel less engaged than resentful. My heart was ready to be warmed. But it never got above room temperature.
David and his wife had planned to adopt a child. After her death, he intends to cancel, but something about the boy in the box reminds him of his own time as a misfit kid. He knows that most people labeled “weird” as children never eradicate the weirdness; they just find a way to push it inside. In a sense, every adult who fits in lives in a kind of a box. Except that Dennis’ box is not only literally labled “Fragile — Handle with Care,” but someone has to point that out, in case we miss the point.
When Dennis says he is afraid of the sun, some ultra-strength sunblock and a gentle game of catch help to coax him out of the box. Dennis says that he is afraid that he will float up into the sky because “Earth’s gravity is weak. Mars is constantly pulling me back,” David creates a weight belt to anchor him to the ground. When he comes to live in David’s house, he tells Dennis to “think of it as a bigger box.”
So far, so charming, even heart-warming, and Cusack, as always, is affecting and sympathetic. But then too many clunky and heavy-handed moments begin to pile up, ending with a scene that would have strained credibility even in a Shirley Temple movie. We are expected to believe that the decision on whether an adoption can go forward will hinge on a huge, intimidating group interview of a troubled child by a bunch of adults sitting around a boardroom table. While it does spare us the “aha” moment by omitting any attempt to explain Dennis’ behavior with some easily capsuled trauma, it never seems to settle on an emotionally or narratively consistent set of traits. He is a bright kid who somehow got hold of a lot of facts about space and apparently he has synesthesia. But are other moments supposed to be magic or coincidence? Dennis is less a character than a collection of adorable and convenient traits.
The same is true of the characters played by Joan Cusack and Amanda Peet, along with a surprise guest star who shows up just to be overly dictatorial and then overly moved, and of the agent played by Oliver Platt. Even David’s character is thin. We feel his loss and unwillingness to make himself vulnerable, but we do not see him evolve. All struggle with under-written roles that even their acting talent and star power cannot make work.
Parents should know that the movie includes some strong and disturbing material for a PG, including a child in peril and the issues of loss and abandonment. There is a sad death of a beloved pet.
Families who see this movie should talk about the way children, teens, and adults treat those who are different. What could the children and teachers have done to make Dennis feel more comfortable. What did David do that made the most difference? What did they learn from each other?
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy I am Sam and “Sentimental Journey.” And they will enjoy the description in The Little Prince of what is necessary to tame a frightened animal. In K-Pax Kevin Spacey says he is from another planet. Families who want to learn about synesthesia can find information here.