Is sanity an absolute, or just a matter of perspective? Who among us are truly the sane ones? These questions frame a theme that’s formed the basis for numerous past films centering around protagonists more than a few degrees off center from "normal" and the authority figures who try to help and/or "cure" them. K-PAX adds an extraterrestrial twist: the allegedly delusional person in question claims to be an alien from another planet. Part One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, part Starman, it’s a very familiar tale that’s lifted above the norm by two fine performances from Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges.
Eliseo Subiela’s 1986 feature Man Facing Southeast took this same premise and gave it a farcical spin. Here, director Ian Softley (The Wings of the Dove) and screenwriter Charles Leavitt (adapting Gene Brewer’s novel) instead take an earnest tack and focus on quieter, more personal touches. A man calling himself Prot (Spacey) claims to be a 337-year-old alien from a planet called K-PAX, 1000 light years from earth in the constellation Lyra. He’s admitted to the Psychiatric Institute of Manhattan and placed under the care of Dr. Mark Powell (Bridges), who soon decides ”This is the most convincing delusional I’ve ever come across.” The reasons behind Powell’s diagnosis are numerous: beyond his resistance to Thorazine, Prot can sense ultraviolet light and has a heart rate of 40 and a knowledge of astrophysics that impresses numerous Earth experts.
The surrounding structure of the film is very recognizable. There’s the customary raft of quirky yet lovable psychiatric inmates and the requisite authority figure (Alfre Woodard) who wants to ship Prot to a snake pit. The workaholic Dr. Powell has a strained home life and non-existent relationship with a son from his first marriage. Naturally Prot turns the tables, helping both his doctor and fellow patients in calmly beatific fashion.
All this is not very original and would be tiresome were it not for the impressive core performances of Spacey and Bridges. Playing an alleged alien allows Spacey to let loose his already typical wryness and cynicism but restrains the physical aspects. His Prot is a deadpan Dalai Lama, he who knows he’s the only one in on the joke but never smiles. Such is Spacey’s skill that what might have come across as Hallmark greeting card platitudes in the hands of another actor here indeed sound wise and profound.
Bridges’ Powell is a man made so weary by trying to find answers for others that he’s given up on finding his own. You can see that dealing with Prot challenges him, energizes him, and allows him to recognize his own problems and shortcomings. It’s fulfilling to see the relationship between the two men evolve over the interlocked arcs of their stories.
As the story progresses Powell continues to uncover evidence to support both sides of the crazy vs. alien balance scale. And the film’s finale provides an answer, but one that doesn’t necessarily resolve the issue clearly. Rather than being a cop-out, though, it’s a satisfying resolution that provokes even more speculation. K-PAX suggests that perhaps the answers we find or conclusions we reach are less important than the questions we ask.
– Bob Aulert