K-Pax: Minor Melodrama, Starring Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges

Lawrence Gordon, the producer of K-Pax, would like to believe that his new film is in the spiritual-magical vein of Field Of Dreams (1989), a far superior baseball story about faith and redemption, which he also produced.

However, judging by the minor melodrama that unfolds onscreen, K-Pax is more in the therapeutic tradition of Equus, an intimate chamber piece centering on the problematic, shifting relationship between a mentally disturbed patient, who claims he is from another planet, and his shrink, a neglectful husband and father who suffers from male menopause.

Part mystery, part comedy, but mostly human melodrama, the film benefits from good direction by Iain Softley (The Wings Of The Dove) and strong performances from the two leads, Kevin Spacey as the “alien” and Jeff Bridges as the psychiatrist. Due to the A-talent involved, both in front and behind the camera, Universal is positioning K-Pax as a prestige late autumn release, but the film which closes the London film festival on Nov 22 – is not likely to generate much steam or strong press. Moderate box-office is expected, with stronger prospects in ancillary markets.

If K-Pax were a stage play rather than a film, it would be recommended that the actors switch roles on alternate nights, a strategy that paid off when Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C Reilly did during the recent revival of Sam Shepard’s True West. At this juncture of his career, Spacey may be too comfortable at delivering bright, cynical lines in a cool, acerbic manner. And, as older viewers may recall, Bridges did play a genteel, romantic alien in Starman (1984), a romantic sci-fi film that garnered him a Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Speaking of Oscars, each of the leads boasts a plethora of Academy Awards and/or nominations. Furthermore, knowing the kinds of roles that the Academy goes for – parts that call for suffering, victimization, mental illness and physical disability – K-Pax, with its mental ward setting, is “Oscar stuff” material.

The story begins and ends at New York’s Grand Central Station, where a strange man (Spacey) wearing dark glasses in broad light is detained after a mugging. The police turns the man with no name over to Dr. Mark Powell (Bridges), a seasoned psychiatrist at a public hospital, where the stranger claims that the light of their planet is too bright for him, much brighter than the light back home on his distant plant, K-Pax. Having treated many delusional men in his career, Powell assumes it’s only a matter of time before he cracks the veneer of the outsider, whom he calls Prot.

The first hour maintains some mystery over the identity of Prot, who claims he is on a fact-finding mission, drawing contrasts between life on Earth and on K-Pax, where there are no marriages, no laws nor lawyers; in short no constraining social structure. Watching a basket of fruit, which he perceives as one of this planet’s few great pleasures, he grabs a banana and chomps into it, peel and all.

Powell becomes more bewildered and less secure about his abilities, particularly after a session in which a group of skeptical astronomers are stunned and confounded by Prot’s scientific knowledge. As Powell continues his efforts to penetrate Prot’s shell, he gradually begins to realize how impenetrable he has allowed his own veneer to become and how sensitive he has been to those around him. Powell’s marriage to a loving and caring wife, Rachel (McCormack) threatens to become loveless, sexless and barren, and he is burdened with an estranged son (from a previous marriage) who he has not seen in years.

To enliven the proceedings, which are mostly structured as one-to-one sessions between shrink and patient, the scriptwriters throw in a gallery of colorful characters, residents of the mental ward, a la One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and, more recently, its female version, Girl, Interrupted. Trying to excel in the tasks given to them, the residents vie for the attention of Prot, who promises to take one patient with him upon his return to his planet, now perceived by all of them as a more benign and enlightened place to live.

Using the tiresome format of running against time – Powell knows that something momentously bad is going to happen on a particular day, on which Prot will leave the ward – the last reel turns the yarn into a suspense mystery, whose nature can not be disclosed here. Suffice is to say that it involves a violent, disturbing, utterly shattering episode from Prot’s past.

At the very least, K-Pax, which is based on Gene Brewer’s 1995 novel, does not repeat the mistakes of Equus (directed by Sidney Lumet in 1977), a fraudulent work with dubious Freudian psychology that was much more effective on stage than on screen. In Equus, psychosis stood for passion and creativity, whereas scientific cure meant banal conformity. Unlike Equus’s therapist (played by a solemn Richard Burton), who was presented as a castrating surgeon, Bridges’ Powell is sympathetic, never hysterical, never raising his voice. And unlike the boy in Equus, who blinded the horses he loved because they witness a sexual act, Prot is depicted as passionate but asexual man.

British director Softley, who earlier made an impression with his subtle, elegant adaptation of Henry James’s Wings Of The Dove, has directed K-Pax with (too much) care, treating the narrative reverentially, as if it were significant or important, whereas it is just a passable melodrama which is too literal and literate for its own good. Furthermore, an uplifting coda seems too obvious and simple, negating the more somber and ambiguous tone of the film’s first hour.

Like Wings Of The Dove, K-Pax is superbly mounted, particularly the exquisite contributions from cinematographer John Mathieson and production designer John Beard, who have collaborated to create an ambience in which light play crucial roles. Since Prot claims that he has traveled to Earth using some form of light energy (and he’ll return home the same way), beams of light play an important role, and there are subtle lighting and camera movements that create ambiguity and doubt among the doctors as well as the viewers.

The danger of K-Pax is that Spacey, cast in the flashy, eccentric role, will receive all the press, and the equally competent Bridges will be ignored. As he demonstrated in The Usual Suspects, as the chatty conman, and in American Beauty, as the burned-out suburban cynic, Spacey has a way of stealing the very words he delivers, of radically changing from film to film the way he stands, talks and moves; his body is capable of sly, nuanced contortions. In a career spanning 30 years, Bridges has always been likeable, always at ease in front of the camera. He exudes the kind of effortless charm that works best when played off a character’s darker impulses, such as in Cutter’s Way, Jagged Edge and now K-Pax.

Vastly underrated, Bridges is arguably the most natural, or the least actorish or self-conscious, actor of his generation. Unlike De Niro or Pacino, who are good in outrageous and explosive scenes, Bridges excels in quiet scenes; even more than De Niro, he’s capable of complete physical transformation. Bridges shares Gene Hackman’s ability to transform the commonplace into an extraordinary experience.