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Watch out. With 'K-PAX,' the proselytizing bit is getting old

Friday, October 26, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

If Kevin Spacey isn't careful, he could wind up being the next Robin Williams.


RATING: PG-13 for a sequence of violent images, and brief language and sensuality.

STARRING: Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges

DIRECTOR: Iain Softley

WEB SITE: www.k-pax.com



I don't mean the standup comic with the lightning brain but his cinematic alter ego, Serious Man, determined to make the world a better place as the all-too-human robot in "Bicentennial Man," the Warsaw ghetto martyr in "Jakob the Liar," the renegade doctor in "Patch Adams," the beloved physician who died and went to heaven in "What Dreams May Come," the blue-collar shrink in "Good Will Hunting."

What does this have to do with Spacey? His new movie, "K-PAX," casts him as that sturdy movie archetype, the psychiatric patient who seems saner than everyone else. Prot, as he calls himself, claims to be from the distant planet K-PAX. He has come to Earth to study the inhabitants, he says, traveling through the universe on beams of light.

By film's end, Prot manages to teach his doctor, Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges), a man of reason, about matters of the heart. Prot understands the other patients, and how to cure them, in a way that Powell never will. He knows that people are more important than process. He helps the good doctor realize that family is more important than work.

Spacey does it all in his patented ironic monotone, the one that makes it sound like he's talking down to you.

In his previous film, "Pay It Forward," Spacey played a physically scarred high-school teacher who challenges his students to come up with a way to change the world. Haley Joel Osment does all the heavy lifting in that one, but Spacey's character does the proselytizing -- just the thing that made us get tired of old Mork from Ork.

In "K-PAX," Prot seems to know everything except the proper way to eat a banana, which has the unfortunate result of putting Bridges, who played an extraterrestrial in "Starman," into a basically reactive role that takes little advantage of his talent for subtly dominating a movie.

So is Prot for real? We want to know as much as Dr. Powell does, but in leaving its options open, the movie lets a few loose ends dangle -- or, like Prot, it wants us to figure some things out for ourselves. Even if we don't believe Prot, it is obvious that K-PAX represents something vital to his fellow patients -- a better place, a haven, an escape, a cure. Or, perhaps, a false hope?

Director Iain Softley ("Wings of the Dove") and cinematographer John Mathieson ("Gladiator") pay particular attention to the lighting effects. Prot says he travels on light beams and his eyes are sensitive to natural lighting because Earth's sun is brighter than the binary star system of K-PAX.

The filmmakers distort and diffuse that light over shots of buildings silhouetted against the sky, as if questioning our version of reality. Light beams also bend through glass prisms while Dr. Powell ponders his peculiar patient, suggesting he can't see the answer lying right in front of him.

But screenwriter Charles Leavitt, a Pittsburgh native, doesn't quite overcome the stereotypes that accompany most films set in mental institutions. There's that notion that the inmates are the most rational inhabitants of the asylum. There's also the depiction of those inmates, usually pictured as either loonies in a trance or, as is the case in "K-PAX," mostly gentle souls with exaggerated quirks.

I couldn't help feeling we've seen all this before. "K-PAX" raises some worthwhile questions, but the movie's premise may be more interesting than its answers.

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