“K-Pax” has a couple of daunting movie cliché obstacles to overcome: the only-in-movies “land of cute crazy people” setting and the always popular “patient heals the doctor” theme. Despite all of that and an unwise decision to tie things up too neatly at the end, the film manages to make it work, thanks to outstanding work by stars Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges and a script that is warm, witty, and genuine.
Spacey plays Prot, who is committed to a mental hospital when he says that he is from another planet called K-Pax and that he traveled to Earth on a beam of light. He begins treatment with Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges). When Mark hesitates to categorize Prot as delusional, one of the other doctors asks, “What’s your diagnosis, jet lag?” To believe Prot’s claims would require abandoning fundamental beliefs about time and space. But his story is so complete – and so enticing – that Mark is determined to find out the truth, more for his own sake than for any therapeutic benefit to Prot.
Mark is not the only one enthralled by Prot’s stories of his home planet, K-Pax. Mark’s astronomer brother-in-law, despite his commitment as a scientist to rational empiricism, is so intrigued by Prot’s answers to his questions that all he can say is, “I don’t know what I believe. I only know what I saw.” Prot’s fellow patients begin to clamor to go back to K-Pax with him. It is not because anything he says makes K-Pax especially appealing – according to Prot, reproduction on K-Pax is uncomfortable, there is no such thing as family, and they don’t have anything as delicious as our produce – but because Prot himself is so appealing. There are indications that he may not be human: in addition to his extraordinary knowledge of astronomy, he has a superhuman sensitivity to ultra-violet light and seems impervious to anti-psychotic medications. But the most important evidence that he is not human could be that he is just too pleasant to be from Earth. He greets everyone by name and he really listens. He is not distracted by conventional beliefs and looks at the world as an outsider, which gives him great insight. Patients believe he can heal them, and Mark almost begins to believe it, too. When Mark’s boss asks him “why choose this one to save?” Mark replies, “I don’t know. Maybe he chose me.”
Director Softley has a delicate touch. Sunlight splintered by a prism, a child’s ruby slippers, Spacey is outstanding, as always, resisting the temptation to make Prot too adorable. The subtlety and grace of his performance are astonishing. Bridges does a fine job as the doctor, and his scenes with Spacey make the movie.
Parents should know that the movie has brief strong language, social drinking, and references to teen pregnancy, rape, and murder. There is a terrible crime, mostly offscreen, but we see bodies and blood. A child is briefly in mild peril. Patients and medical staff of different races and both genders work together in an atmosphere of professional respect.
Families who see this movie should talk about how people react to unthinkable tragedy and how being an outsider can give someone insights that others miss. Why did everyone want to go to K-Pax? Why do we see the reflections of Prot and Mark merge before they ever speak to each other? Why did Prot say that we have within us the power to heal ourselves? What did that mean about his own need to heal? Why do both the Mark and the sheriff say that they do not want to know the truth? Some families may want to talk about Mark’s unprofessional (and unrealistic) behavior in treating Prot.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy seeing Bridges as an alien in Starman, Richard Dreyfuss as a man drawn to follow a spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind…, and that greatest of alien/human friendship stories, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial They will also enjoy John Travolta as a man who mysteriously becomes super-intelligent in Phenomenon, Barbra Streisand as a patient who teachers her psychiatrist about something beyond the rational world in the musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. And they might like to see James Stewart’s acclaimed performance in Harvey a gentle comedy about a man who believes his best friend is a six-foot-tall rabbit with magical powers, and Captain Newman, M.D. about a dedicated WWII-era army psychiatrist (Gregory Peck).