In K-PAX, Kevin Spacey plays a mysterious being named Prot who may be either a visitor from outer space or a human with severe mental problems.
For dramatic reasons, it really doesn't matter. What's important is Prot's message: that people have such a short time here on Earth, it is simply a waste not to enjoy it and their fellow beings.
Of course, such a message coming from a mental patient has no credibility. Coming from an alien, it's much more potent. So while people are trying to figure out who or what Prot is, they are, in their own ways, listening to what he has to say.
Although K-PAX often becomes heavy-handed in its efforts to be uplifting, its theme is reassuring, especially in these days of anxiety.
Co-starring with Spacey is Jeff Bridges as Dr. Mark Powell, a staff physician at the Psychiatric Institute of Manhattan, where Prot ends up after trying to help a little old lady who has been mugged. Would New York cops really cart a person off to get psychiatric help just for claiming to be from outer space? It doesn't seem likely, but upon reflection, many things in K-PAX don't seem likely.
Credit the interesting cast for diminishing the importance of credibility. At first, the acting seems ordinary: Spacey with a smug little smile, pushing all the buttons of the cops, doctors, and caseworkers he encounters; Bridges earnestly bewildered at the latest in a long line of patients who seem to have no resolution in their futures.
But as events unfold, what once seemed ordinary becomes an exercise in subtlety. The give and take between Spacey and Bridges is mesmerizing.
It's obvious that Prot will help Dr. Powell discover and take down his own emotional walls, but getting there is a lot of fun.
It is also fun to watch Prot's influence on the other patients with whom he comes in contact. Among them are the obsessive-compulsive Howie (David Patrick Kelly); Ernie (Saul Williams), whose fear of germs is so deep he cannot function in public; Sal (Peter Gerety of TV's Homicide: Life on the Street), who thinks everyone stinks, literally, and Mrs. Archer (Celia Weston), the self-styled grande dame of the psychiatric ward, who sets elaborate tables for tea and waits for beaux who never show up.
When Prot tells Dr. Powell that he is simply on a fact-finding mission to Earth and has a firm date for departure, Dr. Powell scrambles to figure out the importance of the date to the man who may be masquerading as an alien. But the more he digs and tests and researches, the more Dr. Powell begins to wonder if Prot could be what he says he is. Impossible, his brain tells him. But maybe, his heart replies.
As for the patients, Prot's descriptions of life on his home planet awaken deeply buried feelings of possibility, and they vie to accompany him to K-PAX. “I can take only one,” he has told them, and each wants to be chosen.
From Close Encounters of the Third Kind to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to Starman, which also starred Bridges, the theme of friendly aliens has long held a fascination for moviegoers, and K-PAX is a worthy addition to the genre.
Those who find the idea of space visitors alien to their natures are likely to find K-PAX worth watching anyway, both for the fine performances and for its message.
“Phone home,” E.T. said years ago.
“Do it often and with love,” Prot urges.
Who can argue with that?