It's an unspoken rule of science-fiction filmmaking that most aliens are indistinguishable from California Democrats. If they aren't overgrown arthropods bent on demolishing the Empire State Building, our visitors from deep space are socially awkward but basically benevolent New Age thinkers who speak softly, don't eat meat, and come bearing heaps of helpful advice about our ability to coexist peacefully with all living things. Just once, can't a new arrival to Earth put his feet up on the nearest desk, tear into a chicken leg and reveal that the underlying moral guideline of the universe is "Get them before they get you?"
That doesn't happen in the celestially sensitive "K-PAX," but neither are we asked to swallow a Roddenberry-sized helping of treacle. Kevin Spacey plays Prot (pronounced "Prote"), a mystery man confined to a Manhattan psychiatric institute simply for declaring that he hails from a planet 1,000 light years away. (If every New Yorker who talked crazy was locked up, no one would be left to push the Sabrett's carts.) Prot proves an enigma to his doctor, Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges): Is the new patient the delusional trauma case he appears to be? Or is he a genuine emissary from K-PAX, which, despite its name, is not a laxative but a planet? Finally, what chance does the answer hold to repair Powell's own frayed family life?
This is all headed in a better direction than it appears. "K-PAX" keeps one hand in soporific sci-fi but thrusts the other deep into psychological drama that mimics the better elements of "The Prince of Tides" or "Awakenings." Tempering the gee-whiz wonderment with terrestrial skepticism frees Spacey to actually act, not just recite robotic bromides. His late-breaking but fine performance reinforces this alleged feel-good film's refusal to be fully seduced by the prospect of astral angels in America.
Though the casting of Bridges will lead some to dismiss the picture as a "Starman" knock-off, "K-PAX" reminded me more of "Simon," the 1980 comedy in which a college professor (Alan Arkin) is brainwashed into believing that he's not of this Earth. That film's climactic line of dialogue still ranks among the movies' most salient: "You can change the world with an idea, but you have to think of it first." "K-PAX" doesn't have an original idea to speak of, so it won't change anyone's world. But at least it's in the right galaxy.