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K-PAX   C

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Iain Softley
Writer: Charles Leavitt (based on the novel by Gene Brewer)
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, Alfre Woodard, Mary McCormack, David Patrick Kelly.

Review by Rob Vaux

Sometimes, when you have a really good actor in your corner, you can convince yourself that any project will work. However trite or saccharine, however threadbare or cliché-ridden, there's no script so derivative that a two-time Oscar winner can't make it enticing. This time, the actor in question is Kevin Spacey, and the film is K-PAX, a sort of Cuckoo's-Nest-meets-My-Favorite-Martian that probably sounded good on paper. The results, however, come across as more of an ego project than anything worthwhile.

Spacey plays Prot, a clever mental patient who claims to be a visitor from another planet (the K-PAX of the title). He turns up in a New York mental ward full of the sweet, lovable nutcases that exist only in Hollywood, and -- guess what? -- soon turns the place upside down. His workaholic shrink Dr. Powell (Jeff Bridges), who calls him "the most convincing delusional I've ever seen," becomes wrapped up in the case as a means of avoiding his family. So persuasive is Prot that the entire ward soon believes that they're going back to K-PAX with him, while Powell tries ever harder to uncover the roots of the man's delusion. The doctor's effort may hide more anxiety than he admits: without a firm identity or background, who's to say Prot isn't from outer space?

While the premise feels creaky from the outset, director Iain Softley actually handles the most difficult parts with ease. In order for K-PAX to work, we must always question whether Prot is really an alien, or simply a very smart lunatic. Softley strikes a nice balance between these possibilities -- hinting at one or the other, but never quite coming clean. The guessing game becomes the movie's foundation, and keeps us interested long after we should have zoned out.

Unfortunately, that delicate touch never translates to the rest of the film. The subplot involving Bridges' family goes nowhere, and the mental ward contents itself with a low-key Rain Man knock-off. The wheels come off completely in the second half, when Prot undergoes that mangiest of psychiatric clichés, Regression Hypnosis; the scenes that follow will test even the steeliest audience with their sheer self-indulgence.

And what of the star, for whom all this is presumably geared? Spacey's performance is nothing if not watchable, radiating the same sort of strange intelligence that made him famous. Yet it feels very mannered, more like a theatrical exercise than a real role. Prot displays countless quirks that actors eat up -- tilting his head at odd angles, devouring fruit whole, and puttering around while the rest of the cast looks on in awe. It's never boring, but it also lacks heft. For all his eccentricities, Prot retains all the depth and reality of a Halloween costume. Interesting tics can't substitute for a believable character.

The rest of the cast provides scant support. Bridges sleepwalks through his role, shackled by motionless familial subplot, while Alfre Woodard is utterly wasted as the hospital's skeptical administrator. Actor David Patrick Kelly has a few nice moments as one of Prot's fellow patients, but he ends up taking a back seat to Spacey as well. Apparently, the film just isn't big enough to pay attention to more than one star, and without more to stand on, even he can't go it alone.

Film is always a collaborative process, and while a director, actor, or even screenwriter might dictate the overall vision, their efforts cannot exist in a vacuum. K-PAX assumes too much from its marquee player while refusing to offer any substantive support. It takes more than charisma to make a good film. Spacey is one of our very best actors, but this outing does little but remind us how much better he can be.

Review published 11.04.2001.

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