`K-PAX' sounds holier-than-thou

Review: Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges shine much brighter than the material they're working with.

October 26, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The casting in K-PAX is canny, but the picture as a whole is a clunky mix of the canny and the would-be uncanny. A trick character like "prot" (pronounced "prote"), a spookily even-keeled figure who says he's from the planet K-PAX a thousand light years from Earth, cries out for an actor like Kevin Spacey, who can detonate the latent wit in any murky line or bit of action. And you couldn't do better than Jeff Bridges for the dogged Manhattan psychiatrist shaken by prot's claims but intent on debunking prot's story.

These two gifted fellows and their director, Iain Softley (Backbeat, The Wings of the Dove), make you wish that K-PAX would be more than the tale of a misfit who brings wisdom and light to a psychiatric hospital. No such luck. Because of its suicidal determination to play the action for fantasy and realism, and its final descent into bathos, K-PAX dashes our hopes. It sounds like an over-the-counter digestion aid. It works like an emotional laxative.

We root for the good parts to last longer than a sitcom episode partly because prot's descriptions of home are so jarring and original, so ascetic and outlandish. Sex on K-PAX is painful, odorous, nauseating. Family values are non-existent - it takes a planet to raise K-PAX's children. So daily life on K-PAX comes off as a prepubescent intellectual's dream of following carefree pursuits in a healthy vegetarian environment. We wonder: Will the K in K-PAX stand for Kitsch? That would be a nice twist on American movies' usual veneration of smart-aleck aliens.

Hidden behind dark glasses because of prot's ultra-sensitivity to our sun, Spacey wears a hipster's deadpan and adds just the slightest hints of a smile or a laugh. He makes prot's offhand omniscience come off as a parody of a holier-than-thou attitude - or a holier-than-thou attitude magically rid of its superiority. Because Spacey's prot wears his knowledge so lightly, he makes Bridges' earnest, glowering shrink all the more sympathetic: an underdog with the upper hand and advanced degrees. And few directors are more aptly named than Softley, who has a velvet touch; his subtle otherworldly lighting backs Spacey's preternatural calm and brings a humorous undercurrent to the opening action.

But the pieces of the picture add up in the worst possible ways. As prot begins to heal and uplift his fellow patients with unconvincingly effective gimmicks, he comes off as a kind of beatnik monk, with the moral authority to lecture the doctor - and the audience - on the loathsomeness of eye-for-an-eye morality and the failure of Christians and Buddhists to live up to the teaching of Christ and Buddha. The movie, so promising when satirical, begins to smell holier-than-all-of-thou.

At the same time, Bridges becomes convinced that prot is a troubled earthling and that his descriptions of K-PAX are rooted in horrific traumas. The shrink also has a ruse or two up his sleeve, like inviting prot for a July 4 picnic so he can shake the alien's view of family life. Along the way, the doctor learns he must be closer to his wife and family, including the oldest child he never sees - a son by his first wife. In the film's most egregious instance of having things both ways, even prot, the a-familial K-PAXian, urges Bridges to be a better husband and dad.

By the end, the film wants to salute prot for his cool empathy while reducing him to a basket case. It rationalizes his amazing knowledge of astronomy or his ability to talk to dogs simply by labeling him a savant. It doesn't provide any down-to-earth explanation for how he floats into Grand Central Station on a beam of light, or leaves the psychiatric institution for three days without anybody seeing him get out.

Gene Brewer's original book didn't sink to movie-melodramatics like having the doctor fly out west to solve the mystery of prot's origins by himself. And the novel's first-person presentation, from the doctor's point of view, keeps the story grounded in an open-minded skepticism. By contrast, screenwriter Charles Leavitt wants to provide skeptics and UFO believers alike with equal points of identification - right up to a conclusion that will satisfy only the suckers in both camps.

Prot becomes the most self-sacrificial hero since Sydney Carton went to the gallows for his look-alike in A Tale of Two Cities. When he does, this tale of two planets sinks into a black hole of self-pity.


Starring Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges

Directed by Iain Softley

Rated PG-13

Released by Universal Pictures

Running time 120 minutes

Sun score * *

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