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Spacey Sickness
by Lucius Shepard
November 23, 2001

In 1986, an Argentinian film by director Elisseo Subiela, Man Facing Southeast, related the disquieting and creepily ambiguous story of a mental patient whose conviction that he was an alien being thwarted his doctor's every attempt to cure him. Some years later a novel heavily indebted to the film, but nowhere near as interesting, achieved a modest success, and now, in a horrid example of circularity, Hollywood has turned that novel into a movie that effects a hybrid of a watered-down Starman and a lame-ass, preachy, warm-and-fuzzy, politically correct take on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The question the film asks us to contemplate is whether the putative space traveler, Prot (Kevin Spacey), is what he claims to be or if he is merely an enlightened lunatic. But after thirty or forty minutes of listening to Prot's bland pronouncements on the human condition, his self-help-slogan approach to the problems of families, personal growth, and the virtues of accepting those who are different from us, we really don't care, because either alien or nutboy, he's a complete bore. Far from being a strange and incomprehensible creature, apart from a propensity for eating unpeeled bananas, Prot is basically Mr. Family Values, and during the film, one yearns for his keepers to make sport of him, perhaps dose him with a psychotropic agent that would permit his true alien-ness to surface.

Every so often—and, given the tenor of current events, likely more often in the immediate future—the studios feel compelled to make clear to us all that they are on the side of purity and niceness and all things decent, and thus turn out a spate of films whose wholesome, simplistic message is pounded into the audience's brain frame after frame until even the most malignant soul in the theater is prone to a reflex acceptance of such good-for-you homilies as Hate Is Wrong and Love Is All You Need. Nothing can be more loathsome, more disgusting in its hypocrisy, than this product of moral tumescence on the part of the bean-counting millipedes who scuttle through the Hollywood halls of power—as proof, I offer two recent examples of statement pictures: the wretchedly sentimental Pleasantville and another Spacey vehicle, the insufferably gooey Pay It Forward.

Now we have K-Pax.

Prot appears to arrive from the planet K-Pax on a beam of light that deposits him in a train station, where—after telling various and sundry about his homeworld—he is hauled off by the police and institutionalized. In my town, the police have no time for such piddly concerns; an actual cop would probably have shooed him away from his cruiser and driven off in search of something else to do. After proving resistant to all forms of medication, Prot is transferred to the Psychiatric Institute of Manhattan, put under the care of the unrelentingly benign and earnest Dr. Powell (Jeff Bridges), and placed in a ward populated by a collection of the cutest, most lovable whackos who ever suckled on a thorazine drip. Should you happen to face commitment, PIM is definitely the place you want to be sent. It is the Hotel Pierre of asylums, with lively decor and kindly nurses and doctors with plenty of time to focus on individual patients. Instead of the bored, undertrained, and often abusive cretins that usually serve as orderlies in such facilities, we are presented with burly, bearded angels possessed of even temperaments and given to gently persuading a veritable Mouseketeers Club of perky psychotics not to injure themselves. Prot fits right in. Not only does he become King of the Ward, Most Popular, and Most Likely to Thrive After a Lobotomy, but all the patients wind up competing in an essay contest to see who amongst them deserves to return with Prot to his home planet—he can take only one of them, and wouldn't you know, it is a homeless black woman who ultimately earns the accolade (her essay simply, tear-jerkingly states "I have no home"). Then, too, Prot's tedious advice to the patients proves far more effective in treating their specific maladies than any of the strategies put forward by Dr. Powell and his colleagues.

In the face of such poignant wisdom, Powell becomes fascinated with Prot. The man is, after all, a brilliant astronomer, conversant in a Vulcanesque alien language, and speaks with authentic pride and wistfulness of K-Pax, a planet where there are no laws, no marriage, and no pleasurable sexual intercourse

—however, the yort blossoms, according to the Prot-ster, smell lovely in a gentle breeze, and I suppose that makes up for a lack of quality sex. While a degree of humor is evoked in Prot's being interviewed by his cinematic predecessor (Bridges played the title role in Starman), their many exchanges have all the dramatic tension of a dental floss demonstration. But then a film whose emotional climax occurs at a family barbecue, where Powell has brought Prot in order to help him connect with people (though benign and earnest, the doc is really not such a great therapist), is obviously unconcerned with matters such as tension, conflict, et al. Whatever it was that director Iain Softely (Hackers,Backbeat) was trying to achieve is a far more compelling mystery than Prot's actual nature. By making Prot such a competent, self-assured, blissed-out fellow, he eliminates most of the disturbing potentials of the situation, those things that might have generated a degree of suspense, and what remains is a steaming pile of treacly human (or inhuman) goodness without a skeleton to lend it shape. We are expected to buy into Dr. Powell's conviction that Prot, who has announced that he will return to K-Pax within a month, is preparing to hurt himself or others. But Powell is portrayed as so gentle, well-meaning, and ineffectual a wuss, we know he would wax fretful over a kitty with a tummy ache—how can we take his conviction seriously? And we know further, because Softley has convinced us of this, that nothing truly bad can happen in his movie. The audience, in essence, is in the same situation as the patients at PIM—sitting in their comfy chairs, mouths slack and open, ready for another happy pill. In order to prevent myself from going on the nod, I found it necessary to stab myself in the thigh muscle with a pen knife every few minutes, a painful process, but one preferable to a docile acceptance of the program that the old Softley softly sought to imprint on my soaked-in-saccharine sensorium (sorry for the sibilance, but since seeing this sack of cinematic sofa-stuffing, I've developed a psychosomatic hiss).

Spacey's deadpan delivery, which served him reasonably well in films like LA Confidential and The Usual Suspects, simply does not work here. The role of Prot would have been better served by a more dynamic reading, and all Spacey's wry mannerisms achieve is to enhance the character's dreariness. Despite owning two Oscars (the last for the execrable American Beauty, perhaps the most self-congratulatory film is the history of the motion picture), Spacey is an actor who, albeit technically clever, has shown relatively little range. But it is not Spacey's movie to ruin—the script has already done that for him. Trite, clich�d, button-pushing—the only word that can encapsulate such a wad of insipid garbage is Spielbergian. Perhaps the most annoying facet of the script is the doting fondness for the human race displayed by a purportedly superior being, the tradition of movie and television visitors from afar who just cannot get enough of our effervescent culture, our sublime music and art, our piquant personalities, our flowers, our trees, etc. etc.—it leads one to suspect that the remainder of the galaxy must be butt-ugly. For my part, it's difficult to imagine that an otherworldly tourist taking a tour of the planet would be other than horrified at the conditions existing in most areas of the globe—war, famine, pestilence, unrelenting poverty, pollution . . . unless, of course, he happens to alight in the pleasant environment provided by the Psychiatric Institute of Manhattan. I suppose this tradition most reflects a lack of imagination on the part of various writers, and also the puerile notion extant in Hollywood that we will feel better about ourselves if every so often some fictive superman pronounces us beautiful. Nonetheless, though it is only slightly less clich�d, it would be a welcome change to watch a movie in which an alien tourist lands in a modern American city and is so nauseated by what meets his eye that he immediately ralphs all over a bright-eyed, curly-headed child.

Toward the latter portion of the movie, my wounded thigh aching, giddy from loss of blood, I found myself wondering whether or not I had paid my cable bill, had I defrosted the chicken I planned to cook for dinner, and why the name K-Pax, which—appropriately—had the sound of an over-the-counter calmative. Pax was, of course, obviously intended to conjure an image of a peaceful world, but K brought to mind Franz Kafka's anti-hero. Could it be that a subversive subtext was embedded in this apparently flimsy sugar-rush of a film? Were we being presented with the possibility that Prot's predicament was perplexing even to himself? Could Prot refer to "protean"? Perhaps his porridgelike personality and repulsiveness had a pertinent plot purpose and reflected a post-Sysiphean pitfall into which he been plunged. . . . Usually these little exercises serve to entertain me during the worst of films, but K-Pax was so mind-fogging I could not sustain this one, and—like the rest of the audience—finally succumbed and drifted with the Muzak-like soundtrack toward a rosy narcotized oblivion.

Afterward, as I limped through the parking lot, I was approached by an unremarkable-looking fellow in soiled work clothes who informed me that his name was Poot and that he hailed from the planet Q-Paz, where "the kempen blossoms jiggle pleasantly during the season of the purple moon." Quickly, before he could say more, I assaulted him, knocking him unconscious. I then stuffed him into my trunk and drove to a secluded place, where I have him now, lashed to an ancient oak. He continues to babble about the joys of Q-Paz and how he dotes upon our delightful human ways, our gift for poetry, our boundless kindness and vitality. I have not yet decided what to do with him. Perhaps I will give him a voice in the matter and have him write an essay. But of one thing I can assure you:

You will be spared his pointless story.