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Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a beam of light to catch.




I don’t recall prot being exactly hugely sympathetic back when K-PAX was released, but the character really has his work cut out for him two decades and Kevin Spacey’s rep in tatters later. I don’t really go in for revisionist takes, reassessing an entire career as “always crap” and “I never liked (him) anyway” when dark deeds are writ large and the tide of public opinion turns against someone, but Iain Softley’s movie plays like one misshapenly curated to fashion Spacey a classic lead, like a diluted Jack in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I kept thinking it would have paid greater dividends had he and Jeff Bridges swapped roles, Jeff in Starman mode as the eccentric psychiatric patient and Spacey as his exasperated but diligent shrink (Spacey was earmarked for that part, it seems, but took the prot role when Will Smith pulled out). But the movie wouldn’t make the most of its premise either way, alas, which rather squanders a fascinating and underexplored concept: that of the walk-in.

Prot doesn’t have any of the rebel yell of Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy. He does have shades and stubble, however, and everything he does ends up bettering the lives of his fell inmates (and further, in contrast to Nurse Ratched, the lives of Jeff’s Mark Powell and his family). This is the kind of thing Robin Williams was probably up for, and would probably have made an actual hit from. Kevin, though, runs the ship aground. Indeed, post- his big acting Oscar, when he’d won all the acclaim as a versatile guy who’d keep winning, he actively seemed to make all the choices that illustrated what he wasn’t much good at: classically noble leading man types we’re just sure to care about and root for. Pay It Forward, The Shipping News and The Life of David Gale all flopped, and Spacey decamped to the Old Vic as artistic director, where he’d accumulate further alleged episodes of sexual misconduct and actively pursue such pastimes as cottaging on the Heath. Since then, movies have been strictly secondary to stage work, legal work, an acclaimed-then-not-so-much lead role on TV, and unnerving Yuletide YouTube videos.

In theory, a sociopath should be ideally suited to acting, used as they are to presenting a mask to the world, that of being a “normal” human being. Spacey’s limitations are here evidenced in being a normal abnormal human being, which amount to his having to restrain himself from delivering each line with customary archness, substituting it with a considerate insolence and the consumption of trough loads of fruit (eaten with – oh, my sides – bananas skin included). K-PAX is essentially an “Is he, or isn’t he?” narrative, leaving it up to any viewer who hasn’t read the novels (where he IS) to decide for themselves. Whichever side of the fence you come down on, you’re intended to take away that the persona of prot is a wonder, instilling positivity and purpose in his fellow patients and inspiring his psychiatrist to take positive steps in repairing familial relationships (with estranged son Aaron Paul). 

This much is laid on with treacly trowel, owing to the insistently miraculous wonderment of Edward Shearmur’s piano on the soundtrack. As such, the mystery of who it is prot is “inhabiting” never really holds that much lustre, because the construction of Charles Leavitt’s screenplay is all about resisting a definitive conclusion. Robert Porter killed the man who murdered his wife and daughter five years earlier, tried to kill himself, and may or may not have assumed the identity of prot under conditions of DID.

Alternatively, prot really is a walk-in, enabling Porter’s body to display super resistance to the effects of Thorazine, experience acute sensitivity to the UV spectrum, an intricate – and astounding to the whizzes who quiz him – grip on astrophysics, and an ability to “disappear” a fellow patient. My feeling is that the picture is after the emotional tug of our believing him to be a real alien, even if it won’t say so, because it’s that kind of heart-warming (or intended to be) affair. 

That said, there’s good reason to be disinclined towards accepting prot as genuine. He’s one of those irritating aliens who simply has to depart professing to the wondrousness of humans (“You know what I’ve learned about your planet? There’s enough life on Earth to fill fifty planets”). And he has deficiencies of his own, despite his advancement (“Well, you don’t know what you’re missing”, Mark’s wife Mary McCormack tells him, when he says there are no families on K-PAX). This after prot earlier being dismissive of our Class BA/3 planet at an “early stage of evolution” (“You humans. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how you’ve made it this far”). He imbues Mark with the pat, limiting, determinist philosophy of Nietzsche’s (and the stoics, and Ouspensky) eternal recurrence, and we’re supposed to leave with that thought, on some kind of salutary high (the universe will repeat itself again and again forever, so “get it right this time around. Because this time is all you have”). You’d have hoped for something a little more encouraging and enlightened than scraps from a half-baked nihilist. 

But then, prot also affirms Einstein as a scientific titan, validates the NASA lie (including the findings of the Hubble “space” telescope) and affirms the existence of viruses (as one of the examples of life “trying to find their place” on Earth). So he isn’t particularly clued up. And, if we’re to take prot as bona fide, he could almost be seen as anti-walk-in propaganda. This ET intelligence may have a bond with Robert, but rather than replacing a soul by mutual agreement owing to a traumatic incident (the common characterisation of walk-in circumstances), prot swaps in and out, arriving to write a report on Earth humans before leaving again, with Robert resuming a catatonic state (perhaps some eternal recurrence in miniature). 

In that regard, the walk-in concept, if Gene Brewer, author of the 1995 novel (who denies claims of plagiarism of 1986 German movie Man Facing Southeast) was even considering it, is dealt short shrift. Prot is fully aware of his ET status, rather than becoming gradually so, and his presence is ultimately something of a teacher giving a lesson (to stupid Earth psychiatrists), rather than a potentially more rewarding take of him discovering/ recalling what he is there to do on Earth. The picture resolves itself in a rather awkward “race against time” fashion, as Mark determines he must solve the conundrum of prot’s identity before his “departure” date.

The supporting cast include later The Wire alumni Peter Gerety (also Homicide: Life on the Street) and Clark Peters, Alfre Woodward as the unsympathetic face of psychiatry (“Dose him up”: “He’s not a danger to anyone”) and David Patrick Kelly as the most responsive patient to prot’s message. Saul Williams’ Ernie is a character for the coof age, a mask-wearing germ paranoiac, worried about cosmic rays, the West Nile Virus, and that “new airborne pigeon disease no one likes to talk about”: “Heat is the only thing that kills germs”. Clearly a model for how they want you to think.

Softley’s Hollywood affairs were a decidedly less-than-illustrious bunch (Hackers and Inkheart among them), so it’s little wonder he hasn’t been making much of a splash in recent years. K-PAX is the kind of anodyne, calculated star vehicle that undoubtedly looked great on paper. It’s the inspirational suffering brand we’ve seen in everything from Awakenings to Scent of a Woman, but with an ambiguous twist (you know, like The Usual Suspects… kind of). It doubtless has its champions – it certainly did at the time – but this revisit flags it more on the scale of a chore than passable, pedestrian in its uplifting message, structurally overfamiliar and fatally miscast.

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