"K-PAX" gives off a great deal of light but generates little heat in a drama that aspires to cosmic themes but ends up with plain, comforting homilies.

“K-PAX” gives off a great deal of light but generates little heat in a drama that aspires to cosmic themes but ends up with plain, comforting homilies. Taking what in other hands might be a straightforward alien-visits-Earth tale, Charles Leavitt’s script, based on Gene Brewer’s first in a trilogy of novels, tries to turn the science-fiction elements upside down as a New York shrink tries to fathom the depths of a new patient who claims to hail from distant planet K-PAX. But the film frustratingly fritters away what fascination it develops and bows to the basic conventions of a standard detective story mixed with the theme of a physician healing himself. Muddled results feel like a betrayal of pic’s early promise, and despite large sections that amount to a two-hander between stars Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges, auds may feel let down enough to dampen the ultimate B.O. toward the middle range.

While pic’s most obvious points of reference are “Field of Dreams,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Starman,” which starred Bridges, what “K-PAX” most directly recalls is Argentinean director’s Eliseo Subiela’s 1986 “Man Facing Southeast,” a cult classic that also centers on a psychiatric patient who claims to be an alien visitor. Recent news reports have raised questions about the similarities, while noting Brewer’s claims that he had never seen Subiela’s film. While the two films are different in a host of details, they share many general strokes.

Surprisingly, director Iain Softley, whose previous “Wings of the Dove” and “Hackers” gave no sense of a director with a bold visual style, has expanded a rather straight script into something beautiful to behold. The shadow of Michael Mann seems to loom over every widescreen frame, an influence visible in the spare modernist compositions, ultra-dramatic close-ups and dominant shades of ethereal color, especially blue. Even if, by the end, the story sends things in a literal, Earth-bound direction, Softley coaxes every possible bit of magic out of it, as if he wanted to beam back up to K-PAX along with his hero.

No sooner does Prot (Spacey) appear in Grand Central Station than he’s picked up by suspicious NYPD cops — it seems they don’t like how the guy won’t take off his sunglasses when asked. As chief of psychiatry at the Psychiatric Institute of Manhattan, Dr. Powell (Bridges) knows how to deal with such folk as Ernie (Saul Williams), whose phobias about airborne viruses and chemicals don’t sound so crazy these days. But Prot explains right off that his planet is 1,000 light years away and responds to Powell’s question, “Are you sick?” with a reply that may be a joke or a genuine feeling: “A little homesick.”

Such dialogue will be raw meat to lovers of Spacey’s performance style as the ultimate ironist. For others, there’s a sense that Spacey is doing a now-familiar act, playing as if he’s part of a private joke that he’s not going to share. Once Prot’s identity is apparently revealed, this routine may be seen as Prot’s protective shield, but it feels that he’s more aligned with Planet Keyser Soze than anything like a remote star system.

Bridges’ Powell, on the other hand, is direct, face-forward and curious, and yet, when at home with wife Rachel (Mary McCormack), so wrapped up in work that he’s deaf to her. But he is listening to Prot, even speculating in front of colleagues about whether the strange man really is from K-PAX.

As Prot draws to him such fellow patients as Howie (David Patrick Kelly), whom he assigns to looking out the window for “the bluebird of happiness,” he’s revealed as having the nonhuman ability to detect ultraviolet light (thus his sensitivity to direct light and his perpetual sunglasses) and a huge hunger for produce, from bananas to fruit salad.

Pic persists in playing the is-he-or-isn’t-he game with the viewer, reaching its zenith in Softley’s most theatrical sequence, when Powell brings Prot to a planetarium to meet with some astronomers. Prot displays an ability to mathematically map out K-PAX’s location in a way that renders the scientists silent. Prot’s powers seem to be confirmed when Howie actually spots a bluebird, but Powell senses a possible breakthrough when Prot announces that he must depart Earth in three months on July 27 at 5:51 a.m. — exactly five years from his arrival.

But swinging away from sci-fi, the mystery of Prot is less intriguingly turned into a basic psychological study. Sensing he’s running against time and fighting his superiors (including the barely visible Alfre Woodard), Powell puts Prot under deep hypnosis and seems to discover a hidden past.

Bridges, in what’s finally a magnificently valiant performance that’s much more interesting than Spacey’s mannerisms, does all he can to make the detective business meaningful — and make it somehow connect with his own frayed family life — but it leaves the ultimate sense of a movie that has played at least one game too many with its audience.

While the foreground exchanges of Spacey and Bridges contain the dynamic charge of two musicians in concert, most of the movie’s background aspects are laid on with little emotional commitment. Pic ends with a post-credit cookie that has Powell gazing at the stars.

In a movie treating light dramatically, John Mathieson’s lensing makes the screen pulsate with light, shadow and spectral color, making any glossed-on special effects irrelevant. John Beard’s production design is at one with Softley’s geometrical compositions, while Edward Shearmur sounds like he’s taken more than a little out of the bag of composer Thomas Newman.

K-PAX

Production

A Universal release of a Universal Pictures and Intermedia Pictures presentation of a Lawrence Gordon production. Produced by Gordon, Lloyd Levin, Robert F. Colesberry. Executive producer, Susan G. Pollock. Co-producer, Michael Levy. Directed by Iain Softley. Screenplay, Charles Leavitt, based on the novel by Gene Brewer.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), John Mathieson; editor, Craig McKay; music, Edward Shearmur; production designer, John Beard; art director, Alexander Hammond; set designer, Mary Finn; set decorator, Cheryl Carasik; costume designer, Louise Mingenbach; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Mark Weingarten; supervising sound editor, J. Paul Huntsman; visual effects, Centropolis Effects; visual effects supervisor, Conny Fauser; special effects coordinator, Paul Lombardi; associate producer, Gene Brewer; assistant director, Peter Kohn; casting, Debra Zane. Reviewed at the Writers Guild Theater, Beverly Hills, Oct. 4, 2001. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 120 MIN.

With

Prot - Kevin Spacey
Dr. Mark Powell - Jeff Bridges
Rachel Powell - Mary McCormack
Claudia Villars - Alfre Woodard
Howie - David Patrick Kelly
Ernie - Saul Williams
Sal - Peter Gerety
Mrs. Archer - Celia Weston
Dr. Chakraborty - Ajay Naidu
Maria - Tracy Vilar
Bess - Melanee Murray
Russell - John Toles-Bey
Joyce Trexler - Kimberly Scott
Steve - Brian Howe
Abby - Mary Mara
Michael Powell - Aaron Paul
Sheriff - William Lucking

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