Despite Kevin Spacey's talented alienation, "K-Pax" isn't exactly out of this world.
Too homogenized and simplistic by half, the new psychological drama "K-PAX" also requires a great deal from each moviegoer. Not only must you willingly suspend disbelief, but you must also leave your cynicism in the parking lot. Even then, "K-PAX" may be difficult to embrace.
As if written and directed by the feel-good committee, this melodrama about a man who may or may not be a brother from another planet wants to push only the most obvious buttons. The premise, while not original, is certainly intriguing. But the most interesting themes and issues that naturally accompany such a premise merely lurk beneath the surface of each scene, never mined or explored.
Instead, we are treated to a Hollywoodized version of reality, where all the happy inmates in a state-run mental hospital seem more like quirky, misguided, aging kids as opposed to anything as truly troubling as patients suffering from bipolar or psychotic issues. Even their head shrink (Jeff Bridges) wears thousand-dollar suits.
Into this cheery nuthouse comes Prot (Kevin Spacey). A man of the people, by the people and for the people, he arrives at Grand Central Station just in time to calm a woman who's just been mugged. When questioned about the incident, Prot immediately falls under suspicion because he tells his inquisitors that he's from another planet. Quicker than you can say "E.T.," Prot's hauled off to the Psychiatric Institute of Manhattan.
As portrayed by Spacey, Prot is a gentle, intelligent man who seems abnormally sane and lucid until he starts talking abut his home. As he details for Dr. Mark Powell (Bridges), he hails from the planet K-PAX, about a thousand light years away in the constellation Lyra. He traveled to Earth on a beam of light with the intention of studying the natives of a world in the early stages of evolution and teetering on an uncertain future.
Of course, Bridges' doc doesn't believe for a minute that Prot is who or what he says he is. But when he sets out to unequivocally disprove Prot's beliefs, things don't go exactly as they should. First, Prot mystifies several learned astrophysicists with his knowledge of the star systems. Second, Prot easily performs complex algorithms in his head, coming up with the answer faster than the scientists and their computer-chip-powered advanced calculators. Add to this Prot's ability to connect and cure his fellow inmates, and poor befuddled Powell soon has a genuine shrink-wrapped, Jungian Rain Man on his hands.
When the plot sends Prot to his doctor's home, "K-PAX" really takes a treacly sweet turn. Concerned thematically with the importance of family and human contact, we discover that perhaps the good physician needs to heal himself. A workaholic who often neglects his wife (Mary McCormack) and his children in favor of his patients, Powell begins to realize how lonely and isolated it can be for a person to be alone in the universe. When Powell makes an offhand remark about accompanying Prot back to K-PAX, Prot pointedly tells him he might be better served exploring more of his own planet first.
As with Gene Brewer's novel on which the screenplay is based, the mystery at the core of "K-PAX" is whether Prot is really an alien or just a deeply scarred man with a troubled past. While watching Spacey act is never a waste of time, he seems less engaging than usual here. His Prot may be a savior, but there is still something chilly about his presence, demeanor and speech. Bridges does a credible job playing the other side of the alien equation here, having played a visitor from another planet in "Starman."
The movie's least credible scenes are the ones where Powell attempts some Sherlock Holmes-style sleuthing to uncover the truth about Prot's past. Anyone who's seen either version of "The Miracle on 34th Street" knows that all the detective work in the world won't answer the core question about Prot's reality. The answer lies within each of our hearts.
It's easy to see why Brewer's novel captured Hollywood's attention. There's something ultimately Frank Capra-esque about the "is he or isn't he" dilemma that could speak to the essence of the human condition in starkly realistic and contemporary terms. But for the last decade or so, Hollywood hasn't seemed able to trust the innate intelligence of moviegoers. Instead of offering us entertaining food for thought, they spoon-feed us generalizations and homogenized stereotypes.
I so wanted to embrace this movie, especially in these post-9-11 days where the real world seems more like the movies than reality. I wanted a movie where the message of love's healing power would glow like a warming beacon home. It's obvious the cast and crew and director had the best intentions, but somewhere they lost sight of reality. And in the end, they also lost me. Which is not to say that "K-PAX" won't strike a deeply emotional chord in some viewers; it will. But instead of joining the ranks of such true-to-their-times classics as "34th Street" or "Harvey" or "E.T.," "K-PAX" merely imitates them.
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