Lost in space

Slick camera work and syrupy music soften 'K-Pax' punch

Wags have been saying that Kevin Spacey's name makes him the ideal star for "K-PAX," where he plays Prot, a likable gent who might be from another planet.

There are other reasons, too. For one, Spacey is an excellent actor. For another, he has a slightly offbeat screen personality that makes it hard to typecast him. There's a quality about him that's slightly - well, spacey. It's no wonder he built his early stardom with weird-guy roles in pictures like "The Usual Suspects" and "Seven."

He's certainly the right choice for "K-PAX," named after the planet his character claims to come from. In the first scene, Prot shows up in a New York train station, states his unusual origins, and is promptly whisked to a psychiatric hospital. There, no barrage of drugs and therapies can shake his insistence that he's on Earth for a visit and will return to K-PAX in a few months.

If he's telling the truth - and he may be, given his awesome knowledge of physics and astronomy - you can't blame him for making his Earth vacation a short one. Everyone on K-PAX lives a calm and happy life, he smilingly states, so there's no need for laws or governments.

But if he isn't telling the truth, he must be an ordinary Earthling suffering from very large delusions. Enter the story's other hero: Jeff Bridges as Dr. Mark Powell, a brilliant psychiatrist who decides to dig out the truth. Through hypnosis and sleuthing, he stumbles on information that leads to anywhere but the heavens.

The trouble with "K-PAX" is that director Iain Softley and screenwriter Charles Leavitt make Earth seem almost as utopian as Prot's near-perfect planet. The story acknowledges suffering and grief, especially when Dr. Powell starts tracing Prot's past. But the filmmakers soften every hard fact with slick camera work, silky-smooth editing, and syrupy music. These do their best to cancel out realistic implications the film might otherwise get us thinking about.

In short, this movie is exactly the kind of starry-eyed escapist fantasy that Dr. Powell suspects Prot of having. It's harmless enough, since we can be cured just by leaving the theater. Still, it hardly helps us understand our own imperfect planet better.

Many will hail "K-PAX" as the kind of upbeat fare Americans need during their current anxieties. But there's a difference between movies that broaden our thoughts and movies that put our heads in the clouds.

Rated PG-13; contains violence and vulgar language.

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