K-PAX (2001)

by Todd R. Ramlow


The Spacey from outer space

Kevin Spacey is out there. An impressively talented actor who has recently appeared in some of Hollywood’s biggest successes (commercially, if not always critically), Spacey has nonetheless demonstrated a knack for keeping himself, or at least the details of his private life, largely out of the public eye. This is somewhat refreshing, considering the general state of media whoredom in the U.S. But, being the media whore that I admittedly am, this only makes me want to know more.

My favorite bit of Spaceyiana is from the actor’s interview with Playboy. In response to all the “is he or isn’t he” conjecturing about his sexuality in the absence of any high-profile Hollywood romances, Spacey “came out” to Playboy as heterosexual. Further, Spacey admitted that he has no problem with anyone thinking he is gay, and in fact has done nothing to dispel this rumor, as it has gotten him laid any number of times. There is something so smart and perverse (not to mention a little bit devious) in Spacey’s masquerading as a gay man in order to bed women looking to “make a convert,” that I can’t help but give the man his props. Would that more men (and women) were as comfortable with a fluid sense of masculinity and sexuality as Spacey.

cover art


Director: Iain Softley
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, Mary McCormack, Alfre Woodard

US theatrical: 31 Dec 1969

Of course, this has nothing to do with Spacey’s new film, and is really only to let you know that I find him personally intriguing, and, professionally, have mostly been a fan of his work. His performances in George Huang’s Swimming with Sharks, David Fincher’s Se7en, and Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects were exemplary. And he even made the generally awful L.A. Confidential and even worse Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil a bit more bearable. Then along came American Beauty, which, despite all its accolades, was a pretty smug and preachy little film. This was followed by the abysmal Pay it Forward. (Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment in the same film?! Pass the hemlock please.)

This brings us up to date and up to K-PAX, which unfortunately follows the general downward trajectory of Spacey’s recent career. In Iain Softley’s film adaptation of Gene Brewer’s novel, Spacey plays Prot (rhymes with “goat”), a very human-looking man who claims to be from the far away, titular planet of K-PAX. Shortly after arriving on Earth (K-PAXians travel in some incorporeal form at several times the speed of light), Prot is taken into custody by police (for no real reason, other than behaving “weirdly”), quickly judged insane, and remanded to the Manhattan Institute of Psychiatric Health and the custody of Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges, who has played his own version of Prot in Starman). It is up to Powell to decide “is he or isn’t he” (a space alien, not a homosexual). Of course, the institutionally predetermined answer to this is “he isn’t,” and Powell must figure out the etiology of Prot’s psychological distress and find a cure.

Along the way, Powell’s blind faith in psychiatry’s ability to answer all of life’s big questions is tested, and Prot begins to complicate the Doctor’s easy presumption of his insanity. Prot’s stories of life on K-PAX are incredibly detailed and incredibly consistent, and he displays a knowledge of astro-physics and quantum mechanics far beyond the reach of ordinary humans, not to mention the most advanced scientists. This provides the opportunity for K-PAX to trot out all the old cliches about humanity’s barbarism, intolerance, and general icky-ness. Yeah, we know, we’re all a bunch of spoiled brats.

Contrary to all its superficial criticism of human inconsistency and smallness, however, K-PAX‘s real insight is on how we in the United States conceive of and treat mental illness; strangely, this is an insight the film seems unaware that it is even making. Here mental illness is a joke, played merely for laughs. The Manhattan Institute is filled with stock crazies who are all blubbery and buffoonish.

The film does try at times, though, to see mental illness as reflective of social ills. One patient, listed only as “Screaming Man” (Frank Collison), relates how he came to the Institute after years of working as a doorman at a posh Upper West Side apartment building, and after he started to notice that all the people coming and going from the building “stank.” You see, it’s all about class; rich people stink. At best, this is a facile use of mental illness as social criticism, and it’s totally undone by the repeated use of Screaming Man’s screaming at everyone that they stink. While Prot’s abstract waxing philosophic on “human nature” is given plenty of expression in the film, K- PAX‘s real social commentary (on things like the relationships among class, opportunity and psychological distress) is downplayed and even dismissed by Screaming Man’s loony-bin antics. Presumably “we” can all agree we are pretty bad as human beings, but we don’t need to consider too closely the specifics of how bad we can be and often are to each other.

When these psychiatric patients aren’t being played for comedy, K-PAX reproduces a general and traditional American social disdain for mental illness, as in the film’s easy dismissal of Screaming Man and his fellow patients. The inmates are either simply bothersome for the overburdened staff of the institute, or they are exploited merely for the edification of Dr. Powell, or else to advance his career and the careers of his colleagues. And, of course, the general tenor of the film is that Prot is too smart to be crazy, that the “truths” he speaks are (or seem) too universal to be the ramblings of a madman.

He must be from outer space, rather than “merely” an intelligent and creative man suffering the aftereffects of severe mental trauma. Presumably, in order for an audience to identify or sympathize with Prot he must clearly not be insane, which brings us back to how the film reflects a generalized U.S. cultural phobia of and prejudice against mental illness of any and all sorts. K-PAX is being sold as something of a “feel-good” movie, but ultimately its real message is “feel good that you are not mentally ill.”

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