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The Cusacks: From Another Planet?

Joancusack_4 In typical lazy Sunday night fashion, I happily surfed through my HBO on-demand movies list last night and decided to check out Martian Child, starring John Cusack and sister Joan.

Johncusack_3 I had heard of this quirky little indie many months ago, with its reputation for oddity and wit. The title itself arouses interest at least. And the flick actually earned some pretty good reviews.

The New Yorker may have called it a "near-miss," but it also deemed it "touching, heartfelt, and clever." Over at USA Today Claudia Piug reported that John Cusack "keeps the sickly sweetness at bay with his sharp asides and dry sense of humor. His usual keen intelligence, innate decency and quirky appeal is a potent mix." Even The New York Post liked it! Yet out of 100 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, Martian Child got only a 30 percent favorable rating. Clearly no consensus was ever reached on this strange bit of cinematic whimsy (or folly).

I found Martian Child totally bizarre yet delightful. Sure there's some sentimentality, but that doesn't necessarily take away from the larger themes (acceptance, tolerance, loss), which are -- pardon the pun -- universal, and not just in cinema but literature, poetry, art, et cetera, et cetera. Then there's the philosophical biggie: What, or who, am I? Martian Child tells a strange story but it's very human. I didn't cry and never felt particularly manipulated. (The tearjerker score toward the end is, admittedly, unforgivable, but that's not the actors' fault.) And both Cusacks are at their dead-pan, neurotic bests.

Johnandjoancusackgrossepoint The whole movie basically got me thinking about how rare and quirky John and Joan Cusack really are,  how they've had these incredibly rich, interesting, long-standing careers almost under the radar. Sure, they're famous, but they're also somewhat obscure. They've worked mostly -- and often together -- in dry comedies and darkly humorous dramas (Grosse Point Blank and High Fidelity are fairly typical) but have both branched out into other genres -- Being John Malkovich, Con Air, The Thin Red Line, and Must Love Dogs (him),  Arlington Road and Friends with Money (her) -- with varying degrees of success, to be sure. They have had fascinating careers, both as individuals and a pair, when you think about what it takes to be a "typical" Hollywood star.

John and Joan aren't drop-dead beauties or predictable romantic leads or even your basic ordinary sidekicks. They've found a way to have it all without screwing things up or getting too noticed. And they get away with picking bizarre projects that often bomb. This strikes me as a unique acting journey. Does it rest on talent alone, or also timing? Did the Cusacks get in while the getting was good, and have they cleverly played the system? How were they able to carve out a niche without being pigeon-holed, to make their own ways without being totally typecast? Or have they been typecast in a different way, as the ever-quirky comic Cusack duo?

--Anna Bengel  

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