"Look at me! I'm an Oscar contender!" screams "K-PAX" at almost every turn, and at each of those turns comes another reason why the film should be embarrassed for having such conceited awards aspirations. Snooze-inducingly directed by Iain Softley (1997's "The Wings of the Dove"), "K-PAX" is a sentimental, feel-good drama that is written by Charles Leavitt (1998's "The Mighty") as if he's trying to beat out other competing screenwriters for the chance to pen a hack sequel to "Good Will Hunting." With heavy otherworldly overtones used to spice up the ho-hum premise, watching the film offers a stunning example of how easy it can be to acquire a strong cast to appear in a project that continuously steps wrong.
Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges) is a workaholic at the Psychiatric Institute of Manhattan who hardly has any time to spend with his long-suffering wife, Rachel (Mary McCormack), and their two young daughters. His life is changed, and for the better, with the admittance into the hospital of a peculiar man who refuses to take off his sunglasses in the bright light. He says his name is Prot (Kevin Spacey) and, while he is a gentle person, adamantly claims to be an alien from a planet named K-PAX that is located 1000 light years away. Mark not only is deeply impacted by Prot, as are the other patients at the institute, but also forms an unexplainable bond with him. Through this friendship, Prot allows Mark to realize how important his family is, and how neglectful he's recently been to them.
Based on the novel by Gene Brewer, "K-PAX" means well, but that's all it means. Misguided on every level, whether it be the writing, acting, directing, or storyline, through an odd twist of fate the movie was greenlit before it seemingly was even thought out. Scene upon endless scene is carried out in the same static manner, with doctor and patient facing each other and talking about the planet Prot claims to be from, and the differences in the way of life between his civilization and this one. The dialogue exchanges aren't overtly bad, but they lack vitality or energy, and the question of whether Prot is an alien or not is set up as a major climactic twist that ends up feeling anticlimactic.
Kevin Spacey, who reached a career high with 1999's "American Beauty
," dutifully plays Prot as a kind man/alien with a lot of eccentric behavior. Nothing more is done with the part, really, despite some last-minute character-deepening moments. Jeff Bridges (1999's "Arlington Road
"), another rightfully well-respected actor, has nothing to do as Dr. Mark Powell, and that is quite an accomplishment considering he has the lead role. Spacey and Bridges flounder with parts that no one, no matter how good of a performer, could have fleshed out.
The moral of the story is supposed to revolve around how families shouldn't be taken for granted, but there isn't a single gratifying scene between Mark, Rachel, and his kids. The viewer never gets a sense of the relationships between them, and director Softley's attempt at doing such is half-hearted, at best. There are also two throwaway mentions of an estranged grown son Mark had from a previous marriage, but it isn't developed enough to act as the emotional catharsis the last scene is supposed to be.
Mary McCormack (1999's "Mystery, Alaska
") has the thankless role of Mark's wife, Rachel, while great character actress Alfre Woodard (2000's "Lost Souls
") has obviously seen her third-billed appearance as Mark's disagreeing colleague cut down in the editing room to what now amounts to an extended cameo. Since Mark and Prot are not interesting individuals, there desperately needed to be a strengthening of the supporting players, which there isn't.
Save for a brief sequence in which Elton John's "Rocket Man" cleverly plays on the soundtrack, "K-PAX" is a promising motion picture gone terribly awry. Elements of comedy, drama, tragedy, mystery, and sci-fi have been blended together into a confused concoction that lacks magic, poignancy, or urgency. It does, however, achieve boredom on more than a couple occasions.
©2001 by Dustin Putman