The most depressing thing about K-PAX is that a lot of people will like it.
This fable—about a man who might be an alien and the doctor who tries to understand him—is a stupid person’s idea of an intelligent film (maybe that’s an elitist sentiment, but I’m too busy drinking Japanese sherry and reading Hermann Hesse under my Egyptian cotton sheets to care). This lecherous brain massage disguised as a sci-fi-psycho-ward-New-Age drama will undoubtedly convince people in every strip mall, drive-in and Blockbuster in the world that they’ve been profoundly enlightened. K-PAX will make money, inspiring Hollywood to produce more stuff of the same soul-deadening tenor.
Its shortcomings are legion, but K-PAX excels at pushing the buttons and pulling the strings Hollywood attached to our minds in childhood. It presents us with a scenario that seems terribly familiar, performed by actors using every dishonest little trick of their trade, and builds to a blaring message that can’t be missed even by the pimply 17-year-old in the back row with his hand up his girlfriend’s sweater.
Please don’t be fooled, because this picture will rot your cerebral cortex like sugar rots teeth. It starts with a guy named Prot (Kevin Spacey), arrested in Grand Central Station because he’s scruffy and has no luggage—how that distinguishes him from everybody else is uncertain. He says he has traveled on a beam of light from a planet called K-PAX, which is much more sophisticated and civilized than the silly little rock on which he has found himself.
He’s sent to a mental hospital, where Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges) gets on the case. But Dr. Powell needs help too—he’s a workaholic whose family doesn’t get enough attention. As you probably already know, the doctor becomes the patient as Prot teaches Dr. Powell lessons about himself while interacting with a requisite Ragtag Band of Misfits at the loony bin. And though Prot has improved the doc’s life, Powell is still determined to discover the truth about Prot’s past.
There’s really no dramatic conflict here—the characters and the psychobabble are supposed to carry the entire film. But aren’t we all a little sick of being told that children, sick people and mental patients are so much smarter and more genuine than the rest of us? This sneaky justification of every moviemaking social outcast’s superiority complex just isn’t as much fun the 83rd time around. The anti-establishment chestnut is so familiar by now that it’s become a dangerous tool of that same establishment.
In its only saving grace, K-PAX doesn’t scream this horrible message as loudly as, say, Patch Adams, the absolute nadir of this bastard genre. Still, K-PAX’s sentiments aren’t much less offensive than Robin Williams with that goddamn enema ball on his nose. K-PAX’s muddled amalgam of various soothsayings doesn’t mean anything, but it’s treated as though the secrets of the universe have been unlocked.
It’s shocking to see that this film is the work of British director Iain Softley, who has made one good film (Hackers) and two great films (Backbeat and The Wings of the Dove, the latter of which accomplished the Herculean feat of making Henry James interesting to people without doctorates). In his previous pictures, Softley spurred delicious performances from his actors, particularly Ian Hart in Backbeat and Helena Bonham Carter in The Wings of the Dove. Even Matthew Lillard was good in Hackers, for God’s sake.
Softley directs K-PAX as though he was completely intimidated by Spacey and Bridges, who indulge every actor’s conceit they’ve stored up over the years. Spacey usually has an overbearing quality in his performances, and it’s often his strength. Here, it’s tinged with an air of intellectual superiority from insipid lines such as, “You humans! Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how you got this far.” Prot also dips into a grab-bag of mannerisms and eccentricities—he writes in pretty hieroglyphics and eats bananas with the skins still on—to make sure we understand he’s smart and strange simultaneously. Spacey sticks with this annoying character to the end, but he doesn’t transport us to belief.
Bridges, meanwhile, plays the exact same character he’s used in every film since the first few minutes of The Fisher King—he simply reacts to everything around him with studied, remote affection. It’s hard to get caught up in his quest when he’s just about as active in the story’s exposition as we are.
By the time the film’s blisteringly dumb ending offers up an unlikely diagnosis for Prot, Softley has surrendered entirely to the treacle that every dumb guy and girl in the audience can’t wait to see. K-PAX doesn’t edify, doesn’t enlighten and doesn’t entertain—unless you’re willing to stoop to its level.
If only Prot’s beam of light were the headlamp on an oncoming train.
K-PAX (PG-13) H1/2 Directed by Iain Softley. Starring Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges and Alfre Woodard.