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K-PAX (Iain Softley) 2001

It’s always disappointing when an Oscar win does bad things to a good actor. K-PAX, the second film Kevin Spacey’s made after his Best Actor-winning performance in American Beauty, is definitely an improvement over the horrendous Pay it Forward, but such a statement is the very definition of damning with faint praise. Spacey seems to be treading water as an actor nowadays. The preposterous premise of the picture presents Spacey as “Prot” a mental patient that has apparently appeared out of nowhere, and claims to be the earthbound manifestation of an alien from the planet K-PAX. Jeff Bridges plays Dr. Mark Powell, a Manhattan psychiatrist who’s assigned to his case, but there’s really never a sense that the two are anyone other than Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. Spacey’s spacey alien is a bit of a wiseass, and doles out advice to both the good doctor and his fellow patients. The ward, in typical Hollywood fashion, is populated by a group of colorful characters with distinctly different illnesses that make them seem more like a group of neurotic New Yorkers than mentally handicapped patients. The hospital seems less like a ward for the ill than a playground. The staff seems exceptionally willing to encourage the patients’ creative side, allowing an essay contest and party to celebrate their collective neuroses.

Perhaps the most bizarre example of the medical staff’s open-mindedness occurs when Dr. Powell takes Prot home with him for a Fourth of July picnic. It seems reckless and ridiculous that any doctor would expose a mental patient to his family no matter how harmless he appeared. When Powell’s wife starts telling Prot what a lousy father the Doctor is, the mind spins. Clearly, the good doctor is doing his patient more harm than good. The film tries to justify all of these extracurricular activity by suggesting there’s a great bond between the patient and the doctor, but that bond is never made apparent to the audience. Powell seems initially impressed by Prot’s ability to weave a story, but, overall, seems to remain condescending and skeptical. When he begins going to extraordinary lengths to cure his patient, he says that he feels that his patient has chosen him, but the scene rings false. The eventual outcome of this hubbub is neither very interesting nor very conclusive. The film’s supposed emotional climax left me feeling rather comatose. Softley’s direction seems to be even less sure than it was in his weak The Wings of the Dove, and the film is certainly uglier than his last. Shot by John Mathieson (Hannibal, Gladiator), the film is a murky, shadowy mess. The film’s main visual motif is to show light filtering through glass, and I do not think that it would be possible to show more of this type of shot in a two hour running time. It’s as overdone and simple-minded as the rest of the film.


October, 2001

Jeremy Heilman