Stars Keep 'K-PAX' Aloft

K-PAX is a pleasant enough entertainment raised above its station by the quality of its acting. While the story line gets increasingly questionable, the fact that Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges are taking it seriously makes a good deal of difference.

The film's plot device, briskly adapted from Gene Brewer's novel by Charles Leavitt, is familiar. On the one hand, here's a strange gentleman (Spacey) claiming to be a visitor from another planet. On the other, here's a caring psychiatrist (Bridges) who doesn't think that's possible. They both can't be right, but that's where this film is headed, and it becomes a problem.

Bridges, of course, has been down this road before: He starred as a visiting alien in 1984's "Starman." Here he moves to the other side of the equation, bringing his gravitas and unforced empathy to the role of Dr. Mark Powell, a committed, hard-working resident at the Psychiatric Institute of Manhattan. He thinks he's seen it all, so when a new delusional is added to his caseload, he merely cracks, "Who is it this time, Jesus Christ or Joan of Arc?"

But Prot, as he calls himself, Prot is different. Never without his sunglasses because "your planet is too bright," he claims to have come from a place called K-PAX, which is a thousand light-years away. Curious, superior, even a bit supercilious ("You humans," he says, "sometimes it's hard to imagine how you've made it this far"), Prot has an answer for everything and acts just the way we imagine an effete outer space tourist might.

Playing a droll alien is something of a stunt role, the equivalent of a fat pitch down the middle for someone as talented as Spacey, and the satisfying thing about "K-PAX" is not that the actor is good at it, but how he goes about making the role his own.

A performer who's invariably a bit strange around the edges even in nominally earthbound roles, Spacey grounds his work here in a disconcerting sureness. He adds a sense of the unexpected and a gift for fun, as when Prot lustily devours an entire banana, skin and all, and says admiringly,

"Your produce alone has been worth the trip." Yet even this is not the end. Unlikely as it sounds for this kind of performance, the actor manages to be moving, even strangely poignant, before he's done with us.

The same is true for Bridges, whose role is more difficult because he's the straight man, the killjoy who feels duty-bound to rain on this putative alien's parade. The doctor, though, has problems of his own: He's estranged from his college-age son, and his workaholic habits aren't making things easier for his weary wife (Mary McCormack).

The heart of "K-PAX" is an involving two-hander between this pair of fine actors, each trying to convince the other of the truth of his position. An added wrinkle is that in his spare time Prot tries to mentally balance the other patients in his ward (the usual "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" knockoffs), an attempt that increasingly unsettles Dr. Powell.

Facilitating what success "K-PAX" has is the smooth confidence of director Iain Softley. Though his touch is a popular one, Softley has the rare mainstream willingness not to overdo things. His debut, the Beatle bio "Backbeat," as well as the more recent "The Wings of the Dove" also showcased the value of keeping potentially overwrought situations in check.

Where "K-PAX" finally falls down is in its attempt, almost inevitable for a studio picture, to have it both ways. In its determination to be convincing about each side of the "is he or isn't he?" question, the film ends up going too far in both directions, so much so that, paradoxically, the film finally doesn't seem to be playing fair at all.

But if "K-PAX's" conclusion is a bit too glib, too pat for what it's trying to do, it's an honorable attempt to create a thoughtful entertainment, and it's got the kind of acting worth visiting from another planet to experience.