on October 26, 2001 by Wade Major
   The movie version of Gene Brewer's novel "K-PAX" tells the story of a stranger named Prot (Kevin Spacey) who, claiming to be a visiting alien from the titular planet, spreads wonderment and happiness in the lives of all he touches. It's a familiar paradigm that crosses a wide variety of popular Hollywood movies and genres. Countless benign alien, doctor/patient, fish-out-of-water and asylum movies all come to mind: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Awakenings," "City of Angels," "The Muse," "E.T.," "Starman" and far too many others to list. What's impressive about "K-PAX," however, is that while its credentials are firmly of the formulaic variety, the mixture yields something wholly different from any of its component parts--an existential meditation on the state of mankind in the form of a modern-day Christ allegory.

   When Prot first appears in a train station, he's mistaken by police for a mugger. But his benevolent ramblings soon land him in another lockup--a mental facility, where he's paired with Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges), one of those rare open-minded movie shrinks who always seem willing to go the extra mile with problematic patients. But as Powell and Prot get to sparring on all the predictable topics--the backwardness of mankind, the mating practices of K-PAXians, the quality of Earth's produce--they also manage to touch on topics that are genuinely profound and thought-provoking, most of which winds up overshadowing the central question of "Is he or isn't he?". And while most of the plot mechanics adhere to recognizable staples of the various genres--Prot "heals" incurable patients who, in turn, manifest faith and see in Prot what "sane" people presumably cannot--the entire affair has been handled so strenuously well that "K-PAX" winds up being a far better movie than anyone could have imagined.

   While the movie is clearly Spacey's ship, it's the reliable Bridges (in an amusing reversal from his own "Starman" role) who puts the wind in his sails and director Iain Softley ("The Wings of the Dove") who steers his rudder. Kudos, too, to cinematographer John Mathieson ("Gladiator," "Hannibal") and composer Edward Shearmur ("Charlie's Angels") for sterling work as well.

   In another merciful departure from traditional Hollywood practice, "K-PAX" feels no compulsion to answer any of its more difficult questions. Merely calling such heady issues to the attention of filmgoers (who are urged to stay through the credits for a final tag at the end) is enough to leave most heads spinning and spirits soaring. Starring Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, Mary McCormack, Alfre Woodard and Ajay Naidu. Directed by Iain Softley. Written by Charles Leavitt. Produced by Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin. A Universal release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for a sequence of violent images, and brief language and sensuality. Running time: 119 min

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