Aliens in the psychiatric ward make up the bulk of this Iain Softley-directed feature. A surprisingly unoriginal angle to take, the premise that a patient believes themselves to be something grander than they are, and the subsequent twist being that they were telling the truth. Weird eccentricities are mistaken for mental deficiencies; K-Pax has a tough run of balancing its two formidable leads. Where Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey are often strong leading men, the real challenge is for Softley to convince the audience that both can be believed, despite them being on each end of the argument. That is where the surprising maturity and formidable structure of this feature bases itself, and the self-doubt prescribed to Bridges’ performance and the unknowable nature of Spacey’s give this back and forth a good balance.
But the balance is misread. A fatal blow is struck by the ending. It is a prime case of a final few moments ruining what came before it, although what came before it was middling at best. K-Pax, had it steered clear of the science-fiction drudgery. Robert Porter (Kevin Spacey) looks more like Phil Collins in the 1980s than an alien from another planet. Spacey approaches the visitor from another planet with all the right opening notes. Stunned and awed by the world around him, smug enough that he knows the secret of space travel. Either way, his sunglasses-clad character is an oddball that is locked up within a minute of showing up on the screen. His meeting with Mark Powell (Bridges), the burnt-out doctor who is tired of dealing with patients, is inevitable.
What is unavoidable still is the rectification and revival of his passion. Meeting with an odd new patient reimburses him that lease of life he never thought he would recover. It is the traditional man deep in the throes of workaholism and with no end to it in sight. K-Pax is at least interesting in those moments of back and forth between Spacey and Bridges. Two talented performers that are providing one another with enough intrigue, feeding lines between one another in their sessions together, is more than enough to keep K-Pax afloat. Where Softley finds trouble is in the intervening moments. The family drama of Powell and the flash home he has, crumbling into blandness as his job overwhelms him. Porter mingles with supporting performers who offer a variety of blue-sky thinking, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest knock-offs.
Either way, together the two are strong and when separated (as they often are), K-Pax feels the brunt of its star duo isolating themselves from one another. Strong conversations between the two keep K-Pax afloat though. Those conversations between patient and doctor directly impact the solo work they provide. No wonder their chemistry is the core of the feature. Softley is so dependent on the two of them that he struggles when they’re away from each other. But he must facilitate that as best he can because the direct link between two men discussing the possibilities of the great beyond in the setting of a mental hospital is too much for the red herrings, early-2000s iconography and musical stylings. K-Pax would suffer worse in the modern age, but it doesn’t do that much good in 2001 either.