The spaceman cometh

Charlie Hobart


Directed by Iain Softley

(Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, Mary McCormick, Alfre Woodard)



Back in 1984, Jeff Bridges was given an Academy Award nomination for his quirky performance as an alien who takes human form from a single strand of hair in Starman, John Carpenter’s “intergalactic love story.” Now, a decade and a half later, he hands an alternative out-of-this-world role to another perennial Oscar favorite, co-star Kevin Spacey, in K-PAX, Iain Softley’s adaptation of the Gene Brewer novel.

Spacey stars as Prot (pronounced with a long “o”), a New York psychiatric patient who claims to comes from the titular planet. Bridges plays his shrink, Dr. Mark Powell. Powell, we learn, regularly ignores his family and is skeptical about Prot’s alien origins, despite much evidence to the contrary. While surrounding himself with the most lovable bunch of mental cases ever captured on film, Prot eventually becomes the resident Randal McMurphy, inspiring hope in his fellow patients and dispensing clever anecdotes about the human experience (“Every being in the universe knows right from wrong,” he serenely tells Powell). Doesn’t it always take an inquisitive non-human to explain to us exactly what humanity is?

The crux of K-PAX‘s progression lies in the suspense of whether or not Prot is actually an extraterrestrial or merely a human afflicted with severe emotional deficiencies. This is Softley’s critical mistake, as the film routinely sidesteps the more interesting aspects of Powell and Prot’s intriguing relationship in favor of a banal search for the outsider’s origins. There is a rhythmic cadence to the doctor/patient conversations – a delicate, insightful device that gives a substantial amount of information in the scenes between Spacey and Bridges. When Prot is introduced to a panel of doctors, he cautiously refrains from devolving rhetorical nonsense but instead calmly wonders how many doctors exist on “your planet.” The scene is a moment of restraint on both Spacey and Softley’s part, and K-PAX works best when exploring these subtle details of Prot’s journey.

But essentially the film – which borrows heavily from the similarly themed Man Looking Southeast and The Man Who Fell to Earth – is in a constant hurry to explain and only brushes upon ideas while refusing to dig deeper. K-PAX should simply slow its momentum and concentrate on the plot’s intricacies, instead of coming to an abrupt halt to offer an overly pat denouement.

Still, K-PAX does afford Spacey with one of those roles he so deftly excels at – the witty cipher who is slightly more intelligent than those around him. His Prot is instantly both recognizable yet strangely desolate: Think Spacey’s Jack Vincennes crossed with a heavily medicated Lester Burnham.

Both Spacey and Bridges give finely lucid performances, however strangling their material may be. It doesn’t so much inspire wonder as it merely represses any such speculation. K-PAX, unfortunately, prefers to answer our questions rather than ask us another.

-Charlie Hobart


K-PAX opens today in theaters nationwide.