“It’s a hard world to be different in,” says Cindy Green (Jennifer Garner) to her Pinterest/vision-board child Timothy (CJ Adams) while trying to explain why he must cover up the leaves that sprout on his legs. “Lots of people hate anything that’s different.”
That hammer-to-nail, nutshelled life lesson is one of the pegs upon which the film—a live-action fertility fairy tale from Disney—hangs. It’s also one of the few of its kitchen-sink issues and themes around family (infertility, sibling rivalry, emotionally distant fathers/grandfathers, the impact of death on families, transnational adoption) that is actually developed or given space for contemplation.
The night after receiving the devastating news that their years of fertility treatments won’t result in a baby, Cindy and her husband, Jim (Joel Edgerton), deal with their grief by opening a bottle of wine and scribbling out their most-desired characteristics for their child. Then, without the film ever explaining why, they tuck the paper they’ve written this on into a box and bury it in their backyard garden. Later, as they lie sleeping, a massive rainstorm soaks the earth, and an artfully mud-speckled Timothy crawls from the plot of ground and—yep—into their hearts.
What follows is a film as odd as its title character. Timothy flings grown-up ideas at the viewer but rips the teeth from them rather than risk our discomfort. It sets the stage to explore the pain of discovering that one is infertile, that the father who was cold and distant so many years ago still is, and even the topical issue of bullying. But director Peter Hedges (working from a screenplay whose story is credited to Ahmet Zappa) wraps everything up in sitcom-style punchlines and in tears that haven’t been fully earned—either by the characters on-screen or in the viewer whose emotions are ham-fistedly manipulated.
The family members acclimate to one another, with the Greens trying to explain their new child to relatives and friends while also grappling with a host of plot points: their own financial crisis; Timothy’s athletic ineptitude and his crush on a moody, artsy girl; plus assorted fallout from the boy’s honest-to-a-fault blurting of truths. Garner applies her workmanlike charm to Cindy (her dimples should have their own agent) and has good chemistry with Edgerton, who is scruffily appealing. And CJ Adams, in pure sprite form, is warmer and more appealing than most American child actors, whose steely professionalism tends to suggest assembly-line drones.
It’s the secondary cast that is most interesting, a largely overqualified cleanup crew whose job is to walk through the paces of cookie-cutter characters and make them seem at least vaguely human. Most do, but you still cringe a bit for them. Shohreh Aghdashloo deploys ace comic timing as a droll, no-nonsense social worker. Dianne Wiest expertly toils familiar ground as a scarily intimidating boss. David Morse cuts a striking figure as Jim’s disapproving father. And the fact that Common (one of the most beautiful men making movies) still cannot act to save his life is irrelevant in his formulaic role as a tough soccer coach with a heart of gold.
The thing is, for all the cringe-inducing formula at work (an insufferably cute dance sequence to War’s “Low Rider”; the stoking of consumerist envy in the audience by showing the Greens living in a huge, gorgeous home they couldn’t possibly really afford), the film will shortcut its way to moving many audiences. There’s something cynically smart in the way it peddles catharsis without ever facing trauma. It skates the surface (it’s all surface, really) to provide a sterile cinematic spectacle—You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! You’ll forget everything you just saw before you even exit the theater!—that pretty much sums up contemporary American filmmaking.
But man is Common beautiful.