Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, ...
Credit: K-Pax: Suzanne Tennor

Kevin Spacey characters compose their faces with permanent half smiles, lips together, eyes unblinking. They speak in low, measured cadences. They’re provocatively calm, these seemingly mild masked men. But an exciting thrum of craziness vibrates just below their placid surfaces — in the taunting genius of ”The Usual Suspects”’ Verbal Kint, say, or the bland monstrousness of John Doe in ”Seven.” And while every Spacey man guards a secret, some psychological subterfuges are more interesting — and more suited to the actor’s performance style — than others: I’ll take Lester Burnham’s reckless, self-loathing suburban bust-up in ”American Beauty” over Eugene Simonet’s charred, self-pitying fear of intimacy in ”Pay It Forward” any day.

I’m not sure what to make of the confounding detachment from other human beings that Spacey personifies in K-PAX, a mystical, twistical psychological drama in the ”One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” tradition of romanticizing the miraculous, charismatic, saintly insane. But something in the planets doesn’t align in the spaceman-or-madman conundrum the film poses. Here, the actor’s familiar, cragged visage is assigned to a sleepless, unshaven, maddeningly beatific being who calls himself Prot (rhymes with vote or goat), a stranger who is picked up in New York’s Grand Central Station at the scene of a mugging.

Confined to a public psychiatric hospital by a system that doesn’t know what to make of a polite, undiagnosable patient who says the light on Earth is far brighter than what he’s used to on his distant home planet of ”K-PAX,” Prot becomes the obsession of Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges), an established psychiatrist familiar with delusional Jesuses.

Prot doesn’t fit the profile. He doesn’t destabilize even under the heaviest doses of psychotropic drugs, and he’s got an inexplicably brilliant grasp of astronomy, enough to impress top scientists. Stuck in a mental ward with the usual psychiatric suspects — the obsessive-compulsive mouse (David Patrick Kelly), the Miss Havisham-ish old lady (Celia Weston), the germophobe (”Slam” poet Saul Williams) — none of whom have any problem with the notion that their new neighbor really is an extraterrestrial, Prot becomes their leader. He’s their therapist, their R.P. McMurphy, their freakin’ king of hearts. He cocks his head in birdlike gestures of curiosity; he traverses the halls of his asylum with childlike steps. He says there’s no such thing as family on K-PAX, yet he comforts, soothes, and unites his neighbors. Prot also has a profound effect on Powell, who begins to doubt everything he knows about earthlings and aliens — the doctor barely noticing that his own distraction is taking a toll on his wife (Mary McCormack) and children.

Is Prot a wounded angel, a blessed crazy, a mystical emissary, a guy in need of medication, or a true K-PAXian?

Director Iain Softley (who created such Jamesian beauty in ”The Wings of the Dove”) and screenwriter Charles Leavitt (who did what he could with ”The Mighty”) work hard to blur the answers, sometimes literally blurring focus. Collaborating with painterly cinematographer John Mathieson (”Gladiator,” ”Hannibal”), Softley lingers on moments of otherworldly beauty and everyday activity on Earth, whether it’s a barbecue in Powell’s backyard or the rainbow refraction of light through crystal on the doctor’s desk. Leavitt plays off against the visual gentleness with dialogue of snappish wit: ”Don’t worry, I’m not going to leap out of your chest,” Prot reassures Powell. ”Your produce alone has been worth the trip,” he announces, at one point ingesting a banana, peel and all. (For his part in an undershaped role, Bridges reacts by smiling back benignly, running his fingers through his fabulous Bridges-boy hair, and, as he pieces Prot’s puzzle together while losing track of the pieces of his own life, taking a lot of naps.)

I rather like the whole mystic- crystal-revelations aspect of ”K-PAX,” and the idea that even a psychiatrist of Jeff Bridges’ handsome, American substantiality is open to notions of cosmic improbability. What bugs me, though — aside from my earthbound impatience with dramas that wax romantic about the nobility of insanity as the only sane reaction to a lousy world — is the earthbound path Spacey seems to be taking. First with ”Pay It Forward” and now with ”K-PAX,” he has chosen to squish his big, complex talent into safe-movie containers — into characters who are walking moral lessons, not just men (let alone slippery, cunning, deadly smart men who shouldn’t be let out of our sights).

There are scenes in ”K-PAX” when Spacey plays tired and vulnerable and Christlike — often in carefully decorated settings where the humans around him are sharing Kodak moments of togetherness. That’s very E.T. of him, but not what we need, not even in a Spacey extraterrestrial. What we want from him is a guy who will leap out of our chests, while appearing to be the nicest, calmest man on the planet.

  • Movie
  • 120 minutes