Mystery man Prot (Spacey) is detained in a psychiatric hospital where Dr. Powell (Bridges) is fascinated by his claim to be on a mission from K-PAX, a planet 1,000 light years from Earth. While the doctors dispute his treatment, Prot has an electrifying effect on his fellow patients.
The trouble with delusions is that they can be so much more attractive than the truth. The insoluble problem in British director Iain Softley's intriguing and whimsical drama is that the fantasy is a lot more compelling than the reality.
As in Don Juan De Marco, we get an appealing oddball who is incarcerated, and a psychiatrist who, enchanted by his case, is drawn into his fully-realised, fantastical account of his life. We have the caring doctor (Bridges) - opposed to drugging his patient while he gets to know him and investigates his story - versus the detached, practical doctor (Woodard) who doesn't want any nonsense. What we don't get is a crowd-pleasing resolution.
Romance doesn't entirely surrender to reason, but what begins with every appearance of a comic, sci-fi mystery becomes something more tricky and tragic. The revelation on which it turns is dramatic, but will be about as welcome to some people as food poisoning in the middle of a tasty meal.
Spacey does smart work as a disconcertingly composed, decidedly Christ-like enigma, who is utterly faithful to his conviction. For example, he eats unpeeled bananas whole with every sign of enjoyment. He's certainly the most supercilious and self-contained cinematic mental patient that we can remember - and evidently cine-literate, too, reassuring his shrink that, "I'm not going to leap out of your chest."
Prot is entertainingly articulate, and the sessions where he astounds astrophysicists with his galactic knowledge are delightful. He is, however, a tad low on fizz while he's slipping around the corridors of the psych ward, bringing hope and magical awakenings to the troubled minds of the usual nicely eccentric One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest assortment of nuts.
But it is Bridges, good as always, who becomes the more interesting - in what really amounts to a two-hander - as the man doing the questioning and coming to wish he hadn't looked so hard for logical explanations and truth. In a sense, as the analyst, he's doing the flip sides of Fearless and, of course, Starman.
It's a pity the doc's home life is so ho-hum, with McCormack given nothing to do as his wife but comment on his workaholism. No wonder he wants to believe in stranger possibilities.
Softley (director of Backbeat, Hackers and The Wings Of The Dove) and his two stars disdain the easy temptations of sentiment in the story, maintaining a thoughtful tone. They almost persuade us that this is as deep as it's trying (a little too hard) to be.
A brave but tough-to-sell mix of genres, it has charm and humanity to recommend it, as well as likeable performances, confidently restrained direction and fantastic cinematography. It teases, though, as it goes about trying to have things both ways. Prot’s story is either true or it isn’t, and an ending that seeks to embrace both possibilities is provoking.