In this corner, a man who claims to be an alien from an advanced culture many light years away — is he crazy or not? In that corner, a movie audience watching the mystery unfold — do we care or not? K-PAX, a psychological-metaphysical fable starring Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges, certainly stacks the deck in its favor by casting Spacey as the mystery man and Bridges as the affable, sincere shrink straining to unlock his secrets. But it’s such obvious casting, and halfway through K-PAX I began to wish the roles had been reversed. Spacey can do hipster inscrutability; Bridges can do strenuous compassion. Tell us something we don’t know; show us something we haven’t seen.
Some of K-PAX, mainly the scenes in which Spacey and Bridges smoothly workshop together in long dialogue passages (and that’s exactly what it feels like — two fine actors doing an enticing yet unchallenging actors’-workshop piece to limber up), keeps us tuned into the proceedings. That’s more than can be said for the fashionably brooding direction (by Iain Softley, of BackBeat and The Wings of the Dove) and the each-revelation-in-its-place script by Charles Leavitt (by way of Gene Brewer’s novel), both working overtime to strike a balance between the fantastic and the realistic. This being a Hollywood movie, the realistic is soon left out on the curb as quickly as a Christmas tree on December 26, and as mournful-looking.
The alleged alien, who says his name is Prot (rhymes with boat), is sent to good Dr. Mark Powell for evaluation and sometimes-amusing verbal ping-pong. Dr. Powell isn’t all good: he neglects his wife (Mary McCormack, as fetchingly long-suffering here as she was as Howard Stern’s wife in Private Parts) and children even in the best of times, and when Prot bedevils the doctor’s reason, the wife is left sighing resentfully in adjoining rooms while Dr. Powell lingers over Prot’s recorded voice. (Compare the dishwater tension here with the very real and intense fear and loathing Teri Garr flashes at the E.T.-obsessed Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and see how far even mainstream Hollywood extraterrestrial fables have fallen.)
Prot, of course, meets Dr. Powell’s family and even advises him to make amends with his estranged college-age son; Prot is brimming with unconventional helpfulness, becoming a calming guru for his fellow patients at the Manhattan mental institution where he resides (in a unisex ward, apparently). Prot heals whomever he touches, if they are faithful enough (or addled enough) to take up his mission; he’s a messiah for the Thorazine set. At no point does the movie toy with the possibility that Prot may be a truly dangerous delusional, though we get one or two uptight meanies (including Alfre Woodard in a thankless role) who perceive him as such. Whether Prot is truly a visitor from K-PAX or a benevolent loon, we’re meant to believe in his essential goodness, cleanliness, and Hollywoodness.
K-PAX plays rather cavalierly with real mental illnesses in a way that strikes me as disingenuous at best and faintly offensive at worst, and may be even more so for those who actually work with the mentally ill. A germphobic (Saul Williams) and an obsessive-compulsive (David Patrick Kelly, sadly neutered here of any wildness he’s shown before) are each “cured” by Prot’s soothing words and “tasks,” including one that seems to endorse attempted strangulation as brute therapy. All the hints that lead to Prot’s own breakthrough seem murky and inconsistent, too — he overreacts to a lawn sprinkler in a way that makes you think he’s a psychic who foresees a sprinkler-related catastrophe, but no, it’s connected to a forced-seeming flashback; he regresses under hypnosis and spouts a lot of stuff that doesn’t seem to have much to do with the final revelation, which feels like reheated Fisher King. The movie’s last stab at ambiguity is neatly handled, but the image we’re left with is an immobile Kevin Spacey smuggling in the tiniest smirk of private amusement to let us know he’s still in there. That speaks for the rest of the film.