There's always been something a little alien about Kevin Spacey, both on the screen and off. In the years before his breakout performance in The Usual Suspects, he soldiered through countless supporting roles, exuding that dangerous sense of not quite fitting in ' even when his character was supposed to.
There's also been something a little arrogant about Spacey, embodied in the I-know-something-you-don't-know smugness in so many of his recent characters, whether they're holding a secret close to the vest or embodying some kind of moral lesson. The two qualities ' the alien and the arrogant ' combine disarmingly in Prot, the may-be extraterrestrial Spacey plays in K-PAX, Iain Softley's intriguing man-or-spaceman drama. Prot claims to hail from a faraway paradise, where laws, illness and families don't exist. But does he? Or is he just another loony tune who's lost his way?
One day, Prot simply appears, as if out of nowhere, scruffy and sporting red-tinted shades, in the middle of Grand Central Station. Like so many cinematic Christ figures before him, he's soon in the hands of the authorities. He ends up in the care of Dr. Mark Powers (Jeff Bridges), a workaholic public-hospital psychiatrist who becomes obsessed with Prot's story.
Spacey's spaceman gives him good reason to doubt his skepticism. In one of the film's most spine-tingling scenes, Prot drops the jaws of a team of astrophysicists when he accurately depicts their calculations of what his solar system is supposed to look like. In less convincing fashion, he later drops to all fours, apparently communing with the Powers' family pooch.
Softley creates an affecting tension in the scenes between Spacey and Bridges, many of which are set in close, darkened offices. His camera is fascinated with light (it's the form of space travel preferred by K-PAXians, don'tcha know), offering images of feathers drifting through sunbeams and sunlight gloriously illuminating a summer picnic.
Spacey plays the more charismatic character, but it's Bridges, giving yet another of his reliably gruff, regular-guy performances, who stands in for the audience's shifting loyalties. It's an interesting turn, given that Bridges played the opposite side of the alien spectrum in 1984's Starman.
I wish the film didn't tread so blithely into One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest territory. Dumped, naturally, into a mental ward, Spacey yanks the frazzled strings of his ward mates with a mixture of detachment and glee. Only David Patrick Kelly, as an obsessive-compulsive who conducts an essay contest among the patients to see which of them will accompany Prot when he returns to K-PAX, lends any depth to his character.
Softley wants the audience to suspect that Prot might be telling the truth, and Charles Leavitt's script leaves all options open, whether they be Freudian or extraterrestrial.