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Folio Weekly K-PAX review

Kevin Spacey shines as a kindhearted alien in “K-Pax”

OUTOFTHISWORLD

Prot, the enigmatic character played by Kevin Spacey in “K-Pax”, is 337 years old. A beam of light is his preferred method of travel, and he comes from a distant galaxy, on the titular planet, home to seven purple moons and two suns. On K-Pax, there’s no such thing as a nuclear family, giving birth is an unimaginably horrible experience, children are raised by everyone, and there are no rules to follow or to be broken. Or so Prot says. K-Pax, located more than 1,000 light years away, is a dark place, too. “I had almost forgotten. Your planet is so bright,” says Prot, unshaven, his eyes obscured by dark glasses, when cops arrest him at Grand Central Station in New York. The train terminal is flooded with sunlight, and Prot seems to have simply materialized, later extending a helping hand to a woman victimized by muggers. His new home is a mental hospital, where he’s placed under the care of a psychiatrist played by Jeff Bridges. Bridges, you might recall, played a man not unlike Prot in 1984’s “Starman.” Is this self-proclaimed interstellar traveler a genuine alien or just another mentally and emotionally damaged earthling? That’s the mystery driving the plot in this gentle comic drama directed by Iain Softley, and adapted from the 1995 Gene Brewer novel of the same name. Softley’s film, with a script penned by Charles Leavitt (“The Mighty”), only disappoints when it burrows too deeply into the tragic circumstances that led to Prot’s arrival in New York. The sense of giddy otherworldliness, so carefully nurtured throughout much of the film, is interrupted during these troubling scenes and the magic temporarily slips away.

Prot isn’t tiny, green and possessed of a distended head much too big for his body. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to leap out of your chest,” he tells Dr. Mark Powell (Bridges). Otherwise, he does appear to be a guy who came from Somewhere Else. Prot speaks in mellow tones, often clipping words and sentences in an odd fashion, and he cocks his head in a manner resembling that of a dog. He demonstrates his native language with a sentence that’s packed with pops, clicks and clucks.

This stranger, either from Out There or simply out there, has a brilliant understanding of astronomy and information regarding distant solar systems, obscure research that has yet to be reported in the media. Oh yeah, he talks to canines, too. Spacey, as in his Oscar-winning work in 1999’s “American Beauty,” is up to the task, investing his performance with a resourceful blend of quirkiness and pathos. Prot is somewhat reminiscent of other stranger-in-a-strange land types, and “K-Pax” takes a few cues from the aforementioned “Starman,” as well as “Awakenings,” “Rain Man” and even “One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest.”

He’s a deceptively brainy guy, unerringly kind and quick with a funny retort.  He’s also able to inspire, and perhaps even cure other patients, through the art of mass delusion: The movie’s funniest and most touching moments arrive as several patients, including a man with a phobia of germs, a lonely older woman given to spouting dialogue from Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” and an ex-hotel doorman acutely sensitive to smells, all make plans to join Prot on his return trip to K-Pax.  Bridges passes muster as Powell, a conscientious workaholic, unable to slow down long enough to enjoy the simple pleasures of life with his wife (Mary McCormack of “High Heels and Low Lives”) and two young daughters.

Powell has a dysfunction of his own to deal with. However, the life-lessons material, with the patient inadvertently teaching his doctor a thing or two, doesn’t quite work. Prot, though, is all fun, and Spacey’s offbeat, winning performance alone makes “K-Pax” worth seeing. “I will miss Earth,” he confesses, not long before his scheduled date of departure. “It has great potential.” Likewise, we will miss Prot. Don’t count out the possibility of a return visit. by Phillip Booth

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The Movie Mom K-Pax
Category: Fish out of water
Release Date: 10/26/2001
Director(s):  Softley, Iain
Rated:  PG-13 for language and sexual references, including rape
Audience: 13 and older.
Profanity: Some strong language
Nudity/Sexual References: Some sexual references, including rape
Alcohol/Drug Abuse: Drinking and smoking
Violence/Scariness: Tragic crime (mostly off-screen), sick mental patients Tolerance/Diversity Issues: Multi-racial characters

“K-Pax” has a couple of daunting movie cliché obstacles to overcome: the only-in-movies “land of cute crazy people” setting and the always popular “patient heals the doctor” theme. Despite all of that and an unwise decision to tie things up too neatly at the end, the film manages to make it work, thanks to outstanding work by stars Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges and a script that is warm, witty, and genuine. Spacey plays Prot, who is committed to a mental hospital when he says that he is from another planet called K-Pax and that he traveled to Earth on a beam of light. He begins treatment with Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges). When Mark hesitates to categorize Prot as delusional, one of the other doctors asks, “What’s your diagnosis, jet lag?” To believe Prot’s claims would require abandoning fundamental beliefs about time and space. But his story is so complete – and so enticing – that Mark is determined to find out the truth,  more for his own sake than for any therapeutic benefit to Prot.

Mark is not the only one enthralled by Prot’s stories of his home planet, K-Pax. Mark’s astronomer brother-in-law, despite his commitment as a  scientist to rational empiricism, is so intrigued by Prot’s answers to his questions that all he can say is, “I don’t know what I believe. I only know what I saw.” Prot’s fellow patients begin to clamor to go back to K-Pax with him. It is not because anything he says makes K-Pax especially appealing – according to Prot, reproduction on K-Pax is uncomfortable, there is no such thing as family, and they don’t have anything as delicious as our produce – but because Prot himself is so appealing.

There are indications that he may not be human: in addition to his extraordinary knowledge of astronomy, he has a superhuman sensitivity to ultra-violet light and seems impervious to anti-psychotic medications. But the most important evidence that he is not human could be that he is just too pleasant to be from Earth. He greets everyone by name and he really listens. He is not distracted by conventional beliefs and looks at the world as an outsider, which gives him great insight. Patients believe he can heal them, and Mark almost begins to believe it, too. When Mark’s boss asks him “why choose this one to save?” Mark replies, “I don’t know. Maybe he chose me.”

Director Softley has a delicate touch. He conveys a lot with sunlight splintered by a prism, a child’s ruby slippers, and a spoonful of fruit salad. Spacey is outstanding, as always, resisting the temptation to make Prot too adorable. The subtlety and grace of his performance are astonishing. Bridges does a fine job as the doctor, and his scenes with Spacey make the movie. Parents should know that the movie has brief strong language, social drinking, and references to teen pregnancy, rape, and murder. There is a terrible crime, mostly offscreen, but we see bodies and blood. A child is briefly in mild peril.

Patients and medical staff of different races and both genders work together in an atmosphere of professional respect. Families who see this movie should talk about how people react to unthinkable tragedy and how being an outsider can give someone insights that others miss. Why did everyone want to go to K-Pax? Why do we see the reflections of Prot and Mark merge before they ever speak to each other? Why did Prot say that we have within us the power to heal ourselves? What did that mean about his own need to heal? Why do both the Mark and the sheriff say that they do not want to know the truth? Some families may want to talk about Mark’s unprofessional (and unrealistic) behavior in treating Prot.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy seeing Bridges as an alien in “Starman,” Richard Dreyfuss as a man drawn to follow a spaceship in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and that greatest of alien/human friendship stories, “E.T.” They will also enjoy John Travolta as a man who mysteriously becomes super-intelligent in “Phenomenon,” Barbra Streisand as a patient who teachers her psychiatrist about something beyond the rational world in the musical “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” And they might like to see James Stewart’s acclaimed performance in “Harvey,” a gentle comedy about a man who believes his best friend is a six-foot-tall rabbit with magical powers, and “Captain Newman, M.D.” about a dedicated WWII-era army psychiatrist (Gregory Peck). Review Date:  10/17/2001 Four checks: Exceptional, something special about it that makes it especially worthwhile.

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Spacey casts his spell again in the out-of-this-world drama ‘K-PAX’ Friday, October 26, 2001 By WILLIAM ARNOLD SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER MOVIE CRITIC

Like Humphrey Bogart and Jack Nicholson in movie generations before him, Kevin Spacey seems to be scouting out very specific territory for himself as an actor — almost as if he’s consciously trying to embody the zeitgeist of  his time in the manner of those earlier icon stars. GRADE: B All his characters of late — the dropout husband of “American Beauty,” the crumbling salesman of “The Big Kahuna,” the scarred teacher of “Pay It Forward” — have been supremely cynical and severely wounded men who seek and find a unique spiritual transcendence. The hero of his new film, “K-PAX,” is very much in this mold.

The movie itself is not completely successful, but it’s consistently both engrossing and entertaining, and — once again — Spacey’s performance creates a spell that lingers long after the lights come back on. He plays Prot, a decidedly strange but very calm and affable man who mysteriously appears one day in New York’s Grand Central Station with the story that he’s a visitor from the planet K-PAX. Naturally, he’s promptly whisked to the nearest city psychiatric facility.

Here, a gentle psychiatrist (Jeff Bridges) takes on Prot’s case, becomes fascinated by the extent of his fantasy (“he’s the most convincing delusional I’ve ever seen,” he tells an associate) and marvels at the positive impact his presence has on the other patients. It also turns out that Prot has incredible physical strength, has astronomical knowledge of obscure corners of the galaxy shared by only a handful of Nobel-level astrophysicists, and has some festering psychic trauma that he’s gone to enormous subconscious lengths to suppress.

Gradually, the film becomes a dialogue between doctor and patient, with the shrink stubbornly struggling to break through Prot’s mental wall as his fondness and admiration for him grows, and the movie teases us with the open question: Is this guy crazy or is he really from K-PAX? Charles Leavitt’s script and Iain (“Wings of the Dove”) Softley’s direction are not quite as whimsically magical as the premise demands, and the film is too often derivative of earlier solo-alien-visitation movies (“Starman,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still”). But “K-PAX” is still a fascinating psychological mystery that often has the cozy feel of a two-character theater piece (though it’s based on a novel by Gene Brewer). Softley’s touch is likably light, the staging is confident and the enigmatic ending is just right.

Bridges, who’s gained some weight since his last movie appearance, brings his usual excellence to the secondary role of the slightly dysfunctional doctor working out his own demons. His concern, bafflement and increasing obsession are always palpable. And Spacey finds just the right mix of childlike innocence and cynical earnestness. His repartee is deliciously delivered. He wonderfully underplays several key scenes. He strikes a chord of uncanny, eerie universality that, once or twice, gave me goose bumps.

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K-Pax: Is Prot an alien? Is he a nut? Who cares? By Todd Anthony Sun-Sentinel Film Writer K-Pax

A disheveled dude (Kevin Spacey) in dark shades turns up in the middle of Grand Central Station. He calls himself Prot (as in protein) and claims to hail from the distant planet K-PAX. OK, so we’re watching a movie about a nutcase. The cops take Prot to a mental hospital. He eventually falls under the care of a jaded psychiatrist, Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges), who quickly realizes that he has a very special patient on his hands. For starters, Prot possesses superhuman intelligence and demonstrates a command of astronomy that confounds a panel of experts.

He also has an abnormal sensitivity to light, and can see UV rays that humans cannot. Oh – and he likes to eat bananas, peel and all. OK, so maybe we’re watching a movie about an alien, after all. Either way, the premise suspiciously parallels that of 1986’s critically praised Argentinian film Man Facing Southeast. Adding to the aura of familiarity that surrounds K-PAX, Bridges once worked the other side of the alien-human equation. He garnered an Oscar nomination and set the modern standard for actors impersonating brothers from other planets as the compassionate extraterrestrial in 1984’s Starman. Spacey is solid as yet another damaged saint (see Pay It Forward), but he’s no Jeff Bridges.

Then again, neither is Jeff Bridges. Both actors play men  who keep their emotions in check until the final act; for most of the movie their characters prove likable but not particularly affecting. Powell, who has successfully treated his share of delusionals, becomes so obsessed with cracking Prot’s case that he neglects his own family. Gee, do you suppose he’ll learn an important life lesson by the time the final credits roll? Meanwhile, the man who claims to have fallen to Earth makes believers of his  fellow mental patients.

In fact, his calming, messianic presence proves more therapeutic than the doctor’s therapy. (One patient, Saul Williams’ Ernie, insists on wearing latex gloves and surgical masks to protect himself from airborne toxins. Doesn’t seem so crazy these days, does it?) Prot has an answer for just about everything. But if he really did come from a civilization as advanced as that on planet K-PAX, he’d have given us a more compelling reason to watch “Starman Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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Spacey K-PAX By Ross Anthony

Oh the irony, Kevin Spacey plays a man who appears to be from outer space – his home planet: K-PAX. Initially, the film follows the familiar orbits of other humanoid-on-Earth or savior-in-the-loony-house films, but ultimately distinguishes itself due (in large part) to Kevin’s spacey grin. Within minutes of his appearance, Spacey is questioned by police, “Could you please remove your sunglasses sir?” Spacey, “I’d rather not, your planet is really very bright.” This comment jettisons Spacey into a psychiatric institution where he and Doc Jeff Bridges sort of treat each other for dysfunctionality. To this point, the film teeters on the trite, its script feeling naive, unpolished, young, but strong of heart. If not for the superb acting and production value, it may have failed to complete the mission.

Still, some fresh quips from Spacey keep the sphere spinning, “Don’t worry — I’m not going to leap out of your chest.” Or as Kevin munches on some juicy strawberries, “For your produce alone, it was worth the trip.” Eventually, Bridges, completely obsessed with the case, hypnotizes Spacey. Here the film engages the viewer emotionally and never lets go. Still not    devastatingly unique, the performances, photography, direction and specifics brand the picture with its own style. Making its point multiple times “c,” there is no need for ending narration which scrapes coarsely against appropriate visuals. Their film school teachers would have waved disapproving fingers at filmmakers for that one, “Say it with story, not with sentences!”

Still, I have to admit, “K-PAX’s” gravitational pull swallowed me in and engaged my emotions. It’s been a while since that happened. Director’s statement, “K-PAX doesn’t fit into any one genre. Even though there’s something very fantastical about it, I think people will find that it strikes a chord within their own lives on a number of levels. It is part mystery, part comedy, part human drama. It asks us to look beyond the rational and to admit the possibility of different versions of the truth, beyond the limits of our knowledge. And to look at our relationships, the world and the universe with hope and wonder.” Grade… A- Copyright © 2001. Ross Anthony, currently based in Los Angeles, has scripted and shot documentaries, music videos, and shorts in 35 countries across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. For more reviews visit: RossAnthony.com

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All of the reviews on this page are courtesy of Stacey at the KSML.