USA, 2001. Rated PG-13. 120 minutes.

Cast: Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, Mary McCormack, Alfre Woodard, David Patrick Kelly, Saul Williams, Peter Gerety, Celia Weston, Ajay Naidu, Tracy Vilar, Melanee Murray
Writer: Charles Leavitt, based on the novel by Gene Brewer
Music: Ed Shearmur, Sheryl Crow (song "Safe and Sound")
Cinematographer: John Mathieson
Producers: Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin
Director: Iain Softley


Grade: C Review by Carlo Cavagna

B ig Hollywood must have little faith in its marketing muscle, because it seems loath to release adult-oriented dramas that don't contain some sort of gimmick to sell them. The latest was Hearts in Atlantis, in which the abandoned supernatural elements were nothing more than a device to pull audiences into theaters for a nostalgic coming-of-age story. Now we have K-PAX, which is a pleasant, vanilla vehicle for two-time Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey, but nothing more.

The gimmick here is that psychiatric hospital-inmate Prot (Kevin Spacey), who claims to be from a planet called K-PAX, just might be telling the truth. Take away the gimmick, and you have yet another retooling of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The doctors are too constrained by the prison of traditional psychology to reach the mental patient! The patient knows more about living life to its fullest than his supposedly sane jailors/doctors! The patient changes the lives of all he touches! But a Traumatic Event lurks in his past! Toss in a little Awakenings, a little Starman (including Jeff Bridges--not the spaceman this time), and a little Hollywood preachiness, and you've got yourself K-PAX.

Director Iain Softley (The Wings of the Dove, Hackers) does what he can to prevent the film from becoming a sluggish mess, and for the most part he is successful. He should have toned down the intrusive soundtrack (more a sequence of musical cues than a soundtrack), though. K-PAX would have been more effective with some well-chosen moments of silence. Nevertheless, the actors are the fuel that makes K-PAX run.

Prot is the sort of high-profile-but-safe role that many actors take after winning major awards. Kevin SpaceyOne can wish that Spacey would go back to more edgy material, but this is a showcase role nonetheless, with the able Bridges on board as Spacey's straight man and foil. Playing Prot's doctor, Mark Burton, Bridges actually gets more screen time, but Spacey is definitely the headliner. At first Prot looks like a role written specifically for Spacey's signature--giving the appearance of smirking without actually smirking--but the part gains depth as the movie progresses. Spacey has the subtlety to deliver Hollywood's little lectures without making them sound ponderous, and to be comedic without being inappropriately funny. Make no mistake, this is a Serious Drama, regardless of what the film's marketing would have you believe. The always-marvelous Alfre Woodard in a small part as the hospital's director, and the underrated Mary McCormack (Mystery, Alaska and TV's Murder One) in a wife role join the cast, though McCormack (playing Mrs. Burton) would be more appropriate in a daughter role.

Alas, the movie's internal logic appears to break down severely. K-PAX provides incontrovertible evidence to support both the theory that Prot is an extra-terrestrial and the theory that he is not. The ending, though confusing, provides an opening to reconcile the two points of view.1 Ultimately, the is-he-or-isn't-he question--the focus of so much of the movie--is a red herring. The truth about Prot doesn't make Hollywood's little life lessons any more or less valid (at least, that is what one is supposed to think), and, of course, Hollywood's little life lessons are the real point of K-PAX.

Like many Big Hollywood, This-Is-What-Life-Is-All-About dramas, K-PAX tries to be too many things. It tries to be thought-provoking science fiction, gripping drama, and a fish-out-of-water dramedy without fully being any of these things. It tries to teach everything from the Meaning of It All to the importance of being a vegetarian, but the lessons aren't natural outgrowths of the story. K-PAX takes on too much without delivering enough audience satisfaction.

1 Warning: Ending spoilers follow. Do not read unless you have seen the film. One can suppose that Prot's body is not really Prot, but merely the human vessel that Prot occupies, having been given the opportunity when the body's original owner, Robert, suffered a trauma and attempted to commit suicide. Some part of Robert remains buried inside, and Dr. Powell speaks to some combination of Robert and Prot during hypnosis. When Prot leaves to return to K-PAX, only the broken vessel remains, catatonic and empty. Not all the details in the movie can be reconciled perfectly to this theory, but it suits most of the facts. However, one can well wonder why Prot doesn't explain all this, particularly after Dr. Burton discovers Robert, his "real" identity. Prot is so open about everything else. Perhaps Softley and writer Charles Leavitt would say that explanations undermine the wonder of it all--a convenient excuse for not making sense.

Review © November 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved

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