Screenplay : Charles Leavitt (based on the novel by Gene Brewer)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Kevin Spacey (Prot), Jeff Bridges (Dr. Mark Powell), Mary McCormack (Rachel Powell), Alfre Woodard (Dr. Claudia Villers), Ajay Naidu (Dr. Ajay Naidiu), Vincent Laresca (Navarro), Kimberly Scott (Joyce Trexler), Conchata Ferrell (Betty McAllister), Saul Williams (Ernie), Peter Gerety (Sal), David Patrick Kelly (Howie)
In K-PAX, Kevin Spacey plays a man who calls himself Prot and may or may not be an extraterrestrial from a planet 1,000 light years away. This is what he claims, at any rate, and it is why the New York authorities immediately put him into a psychiatric ward, eventually turning him over to Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges) at the Psychiatric Institute of Manhattan when no drugs or therapy seem capable of cracking his delusion.
And what a delusion it is. The more Dr. Powell works with Prot (which rhymes with boat), the more he begins to entertain the possibility that maybe he is from a planet called K-PAX and he did ride here on a beam of light, as he claims. Some of Prot's explanations—such as why he looks human—are a little too easy; anyone could have come up with them. Yet, at one point, Prot astounds a roomful of astrophysicists with the kind of knowledge about the orbital trajectories of distant planets that only scientists and beings from those planets could have. Prot also exhibits a number of other odd behaviors, including a seeming ability to understand dogs and a ravishing appetite for fruit, which usually includes eating everything, skin and all.
Based on the novel by Gene Brewer and adapted by Charles Leavitt (The Mighty), K-PAX moves smoothly and comfortably on this is-he-or-isn't-he trajectory, along the way developing its primary thematic concern, which is reuniting Dr. Powell with his family. Because he works so many long hours and is so wrapped up in his patients, Powell is oblivious to the fact that he is growing distant from his wife, Rachel (Mary McCormack), and their two young children. We know this is not the first time this has happened, because Rachel is Powell's second wife and he has a college-age son from whom he is completely estranged.
Prot steps ironically into this growing family dysfunction as a healer. It is ironic because Prot claims that there are no families on K-PAX. No wives, no mothers and fathers, no sisters and brothers. It's all community living in which complex emotional entanglements and their subsequent joys and pains simply do not exist. Thus, it would seem that Prot wouldn't be able to preach homilies about how "all we need is love" because "love" as we understand it does not exists for him. Interestingly enough, Prot seems to learn how human should function even when they're dysfunctional, which allows him to help Powell see the lacking in his own personal life. Unfortunately, this also leads to him dispensing greeting-card platitudes about the importance of family and how we only live once, thus we must make the best of it.
Director Iain Softley (The Wings of the Dove) and cinematographer John Mathieson (Hannibal) bathe most of K-PAX in ethereal golden light, making full use of every symbolic beam of sunlight cascading through a window pane or prism-induced rainbow. Softley, who brings a unique visual grace to the film, is also quite fond of mirrors and reflections, and early on his takes a page out of Ingmar Bergman's book and uses a two-way mirror as an excuse to completely merge Prot and Powell's faces into one, unified visage, suggesting the eventual path of their therapy sessions together, in which each has something to offer the other.
There is something vaguely mystical about the film's visuals, but the narrative underlying them tends to get heavy-handed, especially in the psychiatric ward scenes in which the various patients are positioned as a group of lovable, misunderstood eccentrics who are simply looking for a kind of salvation that modern medicine simply can't offer. Prot arrives in the nick of time as the calm, rational-crazy Christ figure everyone has been waiting for, and the film develops into an odd cross between One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Starman (1984).
For his part, Kevin Spacey does well as Prot, although it's hard to get away from the feeling that he's above this kind of smug, condescending role in which he drifts peacefully through a sea of disquiet, smiling as he chastises all the silly humans for their petty squabbles and lack of vision while simultaneously being touched by their capacity for love and commitment ("I get the feeling that, when I leave this place, I will be missed," he says at one point, essentially summing up the difference between K-PAXians and humans). Yet, at the same time, it's hard to imagine another actor in the role. Without Spacey's just barely disguised darkness—that which, when brought fully to the surface, made the endings of both The Usual Suspects (1995) and Seven (1995) utterly believable— the character of Prot would be intolerable. He has a few choice moments, such as when he assures Dr. Powell that he will not leap out of his chest (apparently, his four years on Earth have given him time to rent Alien), but for the most part Spacey plays Prot as an uncomplicated extraterrestrial messiah.
Bridges, who played the mystical outer-space visitor in Starman, has the more interesting, but less showy, character to play in K-PAX. Prot is essentially a one-dimensional role—the mystery of his origin eventually becomes a nonissue because he has affected people's lives for the better, thus his work is done. Bridges, on the other hand, plays a decent, hardworking man who suffers from a lack of vision, especially in his personal life. The various interactions with his family offer the film's few truly touching moments, even if the movie pounds the whole family-togetherness theme in with sledgehammer precision at the end with a voice-over narration that just restates the obvious.
Still, despite its banal moments, K-PAX works in its own way. It's a sweet, sometimes sly, fable about human potentials and limitations. The twisty conundrum of how to finally resolve the question of Prot's origin is handled surprisingly well, so that an answer is given while a certain level of mystery remains. It's a deft narrative move, even if it can't quite rectify the film's clumsy and overstated thematic elements.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick