K-Pax

Movie Information

Score:

Genre: Sci-Fi Drama
Director: Iain Softley
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, Alfre Woodard, Mary Mccormack
Rated: PG-13

Though cursed with possibly the worst title in the history of film, threatening to smother in its own high-mindedness, and never getting anywhere near the level of profundity to which it aspires, K-Pax is at least a thoughtful, beautifully acted film with its heart in the right place — most of the time. Anyone who has seen the trailer knows the premise — Kevin Spacey is Prot, a mental patient claiming to be an alien from the planet K-Pax. Jeff Bridges is Dr. Mark Powell, a workaholic psychiatrist trying to cure him, only to have to come to grips with the question of whether Spacey is the “most convincing delusional” he’s ever met or just possibly exactly what he claims. Since the concept is already well known, the film’s hook becomes the question that plagues Dr. Powell. And anyone who thinks the film is going to hand them an easy, conclusive answer to this question is more delusional than the film’s main character could possibly be. There’s nothing very new about any of this. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Anthony Harvey’s 1971 cult classic They Might Be Giants, which featured George C. Scott as a delusional who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes and Joanne Woodward as a psychiatrist (unfortunately, named Dr. Watson) out to cure him. For that matter, the various tests applied to Prot are not dissimilar to the ones used to attempt to prove to Peter O’Toole that he’s not Jesus Christ in The Ruling Class — and with similar backfiring results. K-Pax differs only slightly from such films (and may, in fact, be an uncredited reworking of a 1986 Argentinian film called Man Facing Southeast, which boasts an almost identical premise), but it doesn’t disgrace the concept, and almost certainly — and very shrewdly — manages to make it into something infinitely more palatable to mainstream audiences. To say that it homogenizes the idea into something more user-friendly wouldn’t be wrong, but it would be a simplistic dismissal that the film doesn’t deserve. Yes, it hedges its bets by surrounding Prot with a wardful of Movie 101 quirkily lovable mental patients. Yes, it has a markedly simplistic view of psychiatry as a game that a loving amateur can play better than a seasoned professional. Yes, it plays to as many of our expectations as it dares. At the same time, it tends to shy away from an abundance of heart-tugging set-pieces. Better still, K-Pax keeps toying with concrete explanations and then turning around and debunking them in such a way that instead of becoming simpler, the question of Prot’s origins become ever more complicated. Director Iain Softley affords the film an interesting and apt look, based on the story’s heavy reliance on light — the light beams on which Prot supposedly travels, the light of earth which is too strong for Prot’s eyes. Visually, the film constantly underscores these things with back lighting, reflections, light filtered through prisms, etc. Softley’s direction is otherwise largely content to leave things in the hands of Messrs. Spacey and Bridges, which in itself is a wise directorial choice, because it is their playing that makes the film truly work as well as it does. Spacey walks a fine line as Prot, managing to suggest that the character might as easily be what he claims as what “reason” tells us he is. However, Bridges in the less showy — and therefore more difficult — role of the doctor is perhaps even better as he moves from burnt-out self-assurance to a self-doubt that rekindles his own humanity to actually wanting to have his sense of reason shattered. The heartbreak he suffers when he appears — for a time at least — to have unearthed the rational answer to the mystery of Prot is that of a man who badly needs to believe that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his psychiatry. If only to see two fine actors at the top of their form, K-Pax is a worthy effort, but it’s a good deal more than that. The “solution” of Prot’s story is in itself one of the most satisfying uses of deliberate ambiguity I’ve ever encountered, even if the film itself is here starting to get a little too gooey for its own good. It’s certainly worth a look, but afterwards it wouldn’t hurt to check out They Might Be Giants and The Ruling Class (the latter just out in a restored DVD presentation) for somewhat edgier takes on the same concept.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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