review by Elias Savada, 26 October 2001

Click your heels together, Dorothy, you're not in Kansas anymore. Situated somewhere between the cautionary military industrial complexes found in half a dozen 1950s sci-fi flicks (particularly The Day the Earth Stood Still) and the mischievous cuckoo's nest of Randle Patrick McMurphy and his delusional partners, the sentimental court of K-PAX is ruled over by Kevin Spacey as king of subdued comic irony. Herein he's Prot (sounds like "oat"), arriving at Grand Central Station in a beam of dust-specked light (Amtrak could make a fortune if they advertised this route—does my AAA discount apply?) and immediately shuttled off to the second floor of the Psychiatric Institute of Manhattan. It seems that New York's finest confuse his day-old beard, good Samaritan efforts, and lack of carry-on baggage as suspicious enough to lock him up in the dapper loony-jail of Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges), a clinical psychologist who spends most of the film wondering whether his newest patient is an exceedingly amused brother from another planet and/or a certifiable castle-in-the sky nut case. It doesn't help that Prot turns the table on the good-hearted but emotionally starved doctor, befriending everyone he meets (i.e., fellow lock-ups and their attending staff), who greet his K-PAXian homily-laden home cures as wacky, but somehow successful, group remedies for a string of previously unreachable patients. This latter confederacy includes misophobic Ernie (Saul Williams), bromidrosiphobic Sal (Peter Gerety), formerly a doorman at the Plaza, Garboesque agoraphobic Mrs. Archer (Celia Weston), the obsessive-compulsive Howie (David Patrick Kelly), hiding behind thick eyeglasses while looking for the bluebird of happiness, and the battered, silently reclusive Bess (Melanee Murray). All register in their limited, quirky way.

Spacey's performance towers above all others in the fourth feature effort from British director Iain Softley. The helmer of Backbeat, Hackers, and The Wings of the Dove paints Charles Leavitt's overly sentimental study of the human condition (based on a book by Gene Brewer) with broad references to The Fisher King (also borrowing that film's co-star Jeff Bridges), another compassionate, humorous glimpse of the thin line between sanity and insanity. Opposite Bridges (who played a genteel alien himself in John Carpenter's Starman some seventeen years ago) is the Oscar-winning star of American Beauty viewing our world mostly through darkly colored glasses ("Your planet is really bright!"), the better to stave off inter-galactic jet lag. Dramamine doesn't work in Prot's case (nor does the anti-psychotic Thorazine for that matter), and any brightness above twilight distorts the visitor's vision, with perceptions aglow in spectral shenanigans and soft focus (as photographed by John Mathieson) and accompanied by twinkly music (composed by Edward Shearmur). Yet, it's a wonder to watch as Spacey's spaceman munches on a banana (yes, a real one, peel and all) or dazzles a group of astrophysicists with dramatically believable astral drawings of his planet and its solar system (at the stunning Rose Center for Earth and Space), a thousand light-years from earth—or the average Big Apple commuter's equivalent of 3,210,764,228 Starbucks outlets.

The film is a bittersweet tale of a stranger in a strange land, armed with a return ticket and an always pleasant, if sometimes laughably condescending, demeanor. Director Softley tiptoes about his subject with just too much homespun cuteness until just before the final exit, when he has Powell hightailing it out to the Midwest to uncover a five-year-old mystery. I was hoping K-PAX would delve into somewhat more edgy terrain (instead of its relatively plain wrapper), something Terry Gilliam might have visualized if he had tackled this project.

If Spacey's Prot is the film's comic neural center (is that like the whipped cream you find inside a Hostess cupcake?), Bridges' Dr. Powell is the aloof outsider, the dour straight man to his comically-addled patients or his wanting family, which he tends to shut out of his life in his quest for the perfect diagnosis. He can't see the proverbial forest through the trees, caught up in trying to analyze Prot through extended hypnosis, while refusing to deal with a long-standing dysfunctional relationship with his twenty-one-year-old son from an earlier marriage gone bad.

As the mental ward parties in advance of Prot's announced departure on July 27th at 5:51 A.M. (for those detail-obsessives amongst my reading public), tired viewers (after nearly two hours—a light-year or so too long) may not be in as celebratory a mood after the last cliché has been uttered. Spacey's Prot is adorable though, and provides enough diversion to satisfy all but the most cynical in the crowd.

Directed by:
Iain Softley

Kevin Spacey
Jeff Bridges
Alfre Woodard
Mary McCormack
Peter Gerety
Saul Williams
David Patrick Kelly
Celia Weston
Ajay Naidu
Conchata Ferrell
Mary Mara
John Toles-Bey 

Written by:
Charles Leavitt

PG13 - Parents Strongly Cautioned
Some material may
be inappropriate for
 children under 13.







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