Kevin Spacey is Prot, a mysterious man who appears from nowhere at New York’s Grand Central Station and claims to be an alien from the planet K-PAX.The police foist him on the Psychiatric Institute of Manhattan, where Mark Russell (Jeff Bridges), the Chief of Clinical Psychiatry, interviews him. Russell initially dismisses Prot as delusional, but becomes interested when astronomers can verify key facts in his story. Then, Prot’s presence on the psychiatric ward begins to have a restorative effect on other patients (he cures an obsessive-compulsive and coaxes an antisocial woman from her room). When Prot announces a deadline for his return to K-PAX, and offers to take one patient with him, Russell must work fast to unravel his secret.
Gene Brewer’s novel forms the basis for K-PAX, and Charles Leavitt (who also wrote The Mighty) expands the doctor-patient interview format of the book. But K-PAX essentially remains a character study about the interaction between psychiatrist and patient. When it strays into Russell’s home life, with his wife making sad eyes at him for spending so much time away from his family, it’s hard to keep from groaning at the clichés.
Although the story has a science fiction premise, director Iain Softley (The Wings of the Dove) prevents the fantastical elements from overwhelming the human drama. We never even see K-PAX, or anyone or anything that looks remotely non-human, and we’re ultimately left to draw our own conclusions about Prot’s identity. The film doesn’t really have much to say, beyond a New Age-y message about human connection. But Softley gradually builds the mystery of Prot’s past and keeps you intrigued.
Softley also draws excellent contrasting performances from his principals. The distinguishing feature of Spacey’s characterisation of Prot is his alien curiosity: he regards the human world with an alternately quizzical or bemused expression. Bridges suitably underplays the workaholic psychiatrist whose scepticism about Prot is transformed by his obsessive desire to learn more about him.I found K-PAX compelling, but it has the shrunken scope and ambitions of a telemovie. It’s the sort of small film that might leave you disappointed in a cinema, but quietly elated at finding something decent to watch if you stumbled across it late at night on television.