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Walks you out of an emotional underworld back into the light —Marty Mapes (review...)

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The setup for K-PAX sounds more like a joke than a feature film.

...so this guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says “doc, doc, you gotta help me. I’m from another planet and it’s almost time to leave.”

Is He or Isn’t He?

Kevin Space-man avoids the light of EarthActually the setup isn’t quite like that. A drifter (Kevin Spacey) is found in Grand Central station and brought into custody. The cops can’t keep him because he’s not a threat, but they can’t turn him loose, either, because he’s obviously crazy. He claims to be an alien from another planet.

Dr. Mark Powell (Bridges) interviews the drifter, who calls himself “Prote” (spelled p-r-o-t). He’s clearly a delusional, but he’s the most convincing delusional Dr. Powell has ever seen. The doctor has some of his friends run a few tests, which seem to bear out Prot’s story that he’s not human.

Part of the movie’s conflict, then, lies in whether Prot is an alien or merely insane. Think about the question beforehand, and think about how you’d have the movie come out, because critics who hadn’t considered this beforehand disliked the movie, while those of us who had, enjoyed it more.

A Convincing Delusional

So the psychiatrist scratches his chin and says “Another planet, you say? Really? Well if that’s the case then perhaps you can tell me where your spaceship is. And you say you’re leaving, but I don’t see your suitcase. Surely you want to take home some souvenirs.”

As a movie-loving friend of mine said, K-PAX looks like the Johnny Depp/Marlon Brando movie Don Juan de Marco, another “convincing delusional” film where a really interesting patient has a big affect on a psychiatrist.

Indeed K-PAX is more about the relationship between patient and psychiatrist than about the fantastic nature of Prot’s claim. Dr. Powell is half-convinced that Prot is an alien, as unlikely as he knows that must be. But more importantly, he’s fascinated by him, almost obsessively. What makes us human? And what qualities might someone have that would let you believe them to be super-human? These human, emotional issues take center stage, not the science fiction.

In fact, if K-PAX were science fiction, sci-fi geeks would be all over it, asking skeptical questions that are not answered in the film. They’d be pointing out key contradictions that spoil their enjoyment of this fantastical reality.

But it’s not science fiction, it’s a Kevin Spacey movie. It’s a drama — almost a chick-flick — in that it has more to do with emotions than anything else, least of all space travel or the physics of light.

Spacey and Starman

Some scenes make the film seem amateurish and hastily produced. A subplot with Jeff Bridges’ son feels completely tacked on (whereas the subplot with his wife and two daughters only feels mildly tacked on). The dialogue that gets at the heart of these subplots is necessarily blunt and expository. By the halfway point, the movie looks like barely a breakeven proposition. Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges are two good actors, stuck in material that appears to be beneath them.

But the second half of the film is more rewarding, both emotionally and plot-wise. Dr. Powell hypnotically regresses Prot, and the scenes of these sessions are excellent. Spacey takes on a naked, innocent voice that belies his jaded, incisive exterior. Bridges proves he’s a seasoned actor, using face and voice to really delve into Prot’s head. Gladiator’s cinematographer John Mathieson shoots them in extreme closeup, enhancing the intimacy of the scene.

Emotionally, these scenes are good enough to counterbalance the earlier part of the film. And without giving too much away, they introduce a new angle on the plot that is both interesting and somehow satisfying.

The ending wraps it up as best as can be expected. If you’ve thought about the “is he or isn’t he” question at all, you’ll realize there’s no really good way to reconcile the two possibilities.

Punchlines

Reasons to go: You like Kevin Spacey. You like the premise. You like emotional movies.

Reasons to skip it: You want science fiction. You think it will be a comedy (the funny scenes are all revealed in the trailer).

“Well, ” the guy says, “To answer your first question, we K-PAXians don’t use spaceships, we have technology that lets us move about as though we were photons. And to answer your second question,” he says, “I’m traveling light.”