Careful, the things you say,” Stephen Sondheim warned us. “Children will listen.” They probably won’t listen, though, with the smarmy gag writer’s attentiveness that gives Noah Haidle’s Mr. Marmalade its faintly obnoxious aura. Can child abuse be conceptual? For centuries, writers and artists have tried to imagine how a child views the confusing adult world, but most of them have at least made some effort to respect the child’s innate ability to set certain things aside for later understanding. TV, our loathsome little omnipresent instructor in the two-dimensionality of life, may strive to instill stereotypes early, but children aren’t such obedient drones. They absorb creatively, not literally.

That’s the quality in children which Haidle dishonors. His four-year-old heroine, Lucy (Mamie Gummer), being raised by a single mom, has invented herself an imaginary playmate who behaves like a figure out of the pre-teen-girl romances that pre-literate Lucy’s still too young to crack, much less to fathom: a fast-lane exec named Mr. Marmalade (Michael C. Hall), whose workaholic compulsiveness comes complete with wife-beating, porno, and coke dependence. While her mom’s off dating one-night stands, and the babysitter’s romping with her beau, Lucy plays doctor with Larry (Pablo Schreiber), an equally neglected five-year-old whose penchant for suicide attempts matches Lucy’s predilection for imagining herself as a battered spouse. And it’s all supposed to be funny, with coy projected scene captions, gag lines full of chic name-dropping, and everybody, especially Gummer, coached by Michael Greif to overact with relentless cuteness. To paraphrase an old political slogan, this exploits children. (NB: For an alternative way of viewing a child’s mind, try Val Lewton’s celebrated 1944 attempt, Curse of the Cat People, handily just released on DVD.)