Prot (Kevin Spacey) appears at a New York train station one afternoon, seemingly on a beam of light. The police quickly take him into custody and he is soon transferred to a mental hospital in Manhattan. Dr. Claudia Villers (Alfre Woodard), the head of the institute, assigns Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges) to help Prot. Powell is the type of psychiatrist who cares, really cares, about his patients, so much so that his family life is strained. Prot is the type of patient that instantly wins over all of the other patients and helps them makes changes in their lives. Powell realizes that there he has a limited amount of time to help Prot figure out who he really is, a mystery that will consume his every waking moment.
"“K-PAX” is a great movie, just what our country needs right now". No wait, that is “Serendipity”. "“K-PAX” is a patriotic flag-waver, just what our country needs right now". No, wait, that is “The Last Castle”. As the current crop of movies get buried under excessive critic hyperbole relating their relative strengths or merits to the events of September 11, 2001, it is refreshing to see a film like “K-PAX” come along. “K-PAX” is a completely ordinary film. Directed by Iain Softley, the film is filled with so many psychiatrist-patient clichés that it almost becomes good for that reason alone.
Kevin Spacey, one of the more gifted actors working today, does a good job with the role. For the first two acts, Spacey is so into the character of Prot, that we begin to believe that he could possibly be an alien. He wears sunglasses throughout most of the film, because Prot is sensitive to the bright light on Earth. This allows Spacey to use his mouth and facial expressions to build subtleties into the character. It makes the character less showy and more believable. For this reason alone, the film earns a lot more respect from me. As the sessions with Powell continue and Powell decides to regress Prot, the Showier-This-Is-My-Shot-At-An-Oscar elements begin to shine through. First of all, I never once believed that Powell had actually hypnotized Prot. It seemed far too easy and far too quick and then when he does, Spacey has a difficult time making this believable. To the credit of Spacey and the filmmakers, they don’t take the easy road with this, providing some interest, but these sequences just stop the film dead and remove the viewer from the world it has spent so long trying to create.
Bridges, as always, is good, but he really doesn’t have a lot to work with. His character is concerned. He wants to help Prot because he is concerned. He want to have Prot visit his home because he is concerned. He flies to …. because he is concerned. It doesn’t allow a lot of growth for his character. Powell’s final moments, the hang-your-tears-out-to-dry moment, is also extremely predictable.
Amazingly, the filmmakers have managed to populate the ward of the hospital with every single character actor who has ever appeared in a film set in a mental ward. Either as a patient or a doctor, they are here. It is a virtual encyclopedia of both actors and clichés. Conchata Ferrell plays Betty McAllister, the big, gruff assistant in the ward. Alfre Woodard plays the head of the ward. Ajay Naidu plays an assistant in the ward. Peter Gerety (you may recognize him from the TV series “Homicide”) plays Sal, the former doorman who thinks everyone stinks, literally. Celia Weston (you may remember her as the actress who replaced Polly Holliday on the television series “Alice”) plays a patient who thinks she is a matriarch. I am just amazed at the originality on display in “K-PAX”.
Despite all of my criticisms, I am still recommending “K-PAX”, barely. The first two thirds of Kevin Spacey’s performance earn the film enough points to help me disregard the rest of the thoroughly predictable film. After all, “K-PAX” IS just what America needs right now, a thoroughly benign peace of fluff.