K-PAX astonishes, also fizzles

Grade: B-

"K-PAX" is a skillfully scripted guessing game, brought to the silver screen by British director Iain Softley (of "Hackers"). The storyline behind this film, from the Gene Brewer novel of the same name, bears an uncanny resemblance to the 1987 Argentine film "Man Facing Southeast" about a stranger who appears at an insane asylum.

The story in K-Pax opens when a mysterious man named Prot, played by Kevin Spacey, is hustled out of New York's Grand Central Station by the police and placed in a psychiatric hospital after telling a cop that the sunlight on Earth is too bright.

In his therapy sessions, he dominates the conversation with a slightly worn Dr. Mark Powell, played by Jeff Bridges. Prot is a fountain of common-sense commentary on human foibles, detailed information about his planet and its surrounding star system, and enjoyably showy quirks such as his love for produce, even going as far as devouring as unpeeled banana.

While he speaks to the increasingly interested Powell, the audience is constantly trying to piece together the numerous clues that Spacey drops in order to put together an understanding of who or what Prot is.

The pivotal question that underlies this film is whether this homeless wanderer, who says he comes from a planet light-years away, is in fact a stranger visitor from a distant planet, or is he a lunatic?

Kevin Spacey is a master of shifting his personality, building compelling cases for both. We don't find out until the film's final scene, and Spacey strides along the middle ground so well that any guess to his true identity will be just that -- a guess.

The main reason why the audiences will even care about Prot's identity is his sense of humor. Spacey delivers perfect, Coneheads-style deadpan misinterpretation of Earth's customs, as well as humorous lines of dialogue such as, "I'm an alien, but don't worry -- I won't leap put of your chest.

Powell, who quickly becomes obsessed with solving Prot's riddle, is the character audiences can identify with the most. Bridges does a fine job of convincing us of his character's skepticism as well as his childlike sense of wonder and awe. Mark's discoveries and convictions become ours.

The scenes in which the these two fine performers play a verbal game of ping-pong with Chris Leavitt's screenplay are highly satisfying. The director knows the dialogue is smart and filled with devious twists and turns that don't require special effects, so he lets the two solid actors get on with their mental game of chicken.

As as "K-PAX" begins losing its ambiguity, however, it becomes something far less magical. This causes the second half of the film to feel like a betrayal to its mystified audience.

In conclusion, Spacey alone gives "K-PAX" the power to soar, but because it is anchored to a burdensome whodunit, it fizzles before leaving the atmosphere. "K-PAX" is an enjoyable film, but it is also a forgettable film.


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