Kevin Spacey has made a career out of being snidely patronizing, of being the smartest person in the room, and that's what I adore about him; he patently refuses to be lovable, and his wicked intelligence and dry-as-sandpaper line readings give a snap to just about every role he plays. (That's why his performance as the physically and emotionally scarred teacher in last year's imbecilic tearjerker Pay It Forward was so disappointing; he's not built for sentiment, and his presence in that mopey role merely exposed the film's schmaltziness.) I guess it was inevitable that Spacey, who always comes off as knowing more than we do, would one day play an alien (or is he?) who arrives on Earth to teach us all lessons about life and love that we can't figure out for ourselves. And so we have K-PAX, which had the potential to be excruciating but, as directed by Iain Softley and performed by a marvelous cast led by Spacey and Jeff Bridges, turns out to be thoroughly engaging; it's a case study in how the right director and performers can redeem mostly worthless material.
Bridges plays Dr. Mark Powell, a New York-based psychiatrist whose new patient (Spacey) is a doozy: He calls himself prot, insists that he's an alien visiting Earth from thousands of light years away, and explains that he'll be returning to his home planet in a matter of weeks. Though prot possesses savant-like abilities and an inhuman sensitivity to light, Powell is convinced that he's merely delusional and goes about trying to solve the mystery behind his past; prot, in the meantime, becomes a spiritual leader in Powell's psychiatric ward, "healing" the mental patients and annoying the staff.
It's easy to see how this material could, in the wrong hands, be ghastly. Prot gives one condescending "Oh, you humans" speech after another, we're given the predictable subplot about how Powell's work is interfering with his home life (Mary McCormack is stuck in the nagging-spouse role), and the mental-health ward is, naturally, populated by huggable loonies straight out of Cuckoo's Nest; in the world of Hollywood, bikers and psychotics are the most misunderstood sweetie-pies on God's green earth. But what's amazing about K-PAX is that you can be aware of all of its flaws and still admit that the movie works. Director Softley handles the sap with delicacy and tact - the movie is manipulative but never offensively so - and he guides the actors in the potentially scenery-chewing roles to restrained portrayals; David Patrick Kelly, as an obsessive-compulsive, treats us to a beautifully controlled piece of acting, and as a fading Southern Belle (is this what happened to Blanche DuBois?), Celia Weston proves especially touching.
Though stuck in a thankless role, Jeff Bridges delivers a typically resplendent Jeff Bridges performance: hearty, lived-in, utterly believable. (Is it too soon for his Lifetime Achievement Oscar?) And while Kevin Spacey might initially seem too well-cast as prot - he has, after all, been playing variants of this elusive, mysterious character for the better part of a decade - his natural edginess and cleverness give his portrayal real shadings (Jeff Bridges himself pulled off a similar feat in 1984's Starman), and his showstopping effects late in the film seem justified, even given the hoary "let's hypnotize the patient" setup. Playing off each other with just the right blend of tension and respect, Bridges and Spacey provide the year's most enjoyable acting duet thus far.
Some might argue that K-PAX's having-its-cake-and-eating-it-too finale is a bust, but I found it terrifically ambiguous; the movie provides a rare ending that's both psychologically sound and metaphysically fascinating, and by this point the film has earned it. Though K-PAX is filled with problems, Softley and company have managed to scrape most of the goo off the material; the lessons it teaches us may be banal - love your family, don't judge others, et cetera, et cetera - but its presentation is surprisingly potent.
What is it about haunted-house flicks that makes otherwise talented actors sign up to look like buffoons? In 1999's The Haunting, the usually gifted Liam Neeson, Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Owen Wilson appeared to be the most insipid performers on Earth; later that year, in The House on Haunted Hill, it was the turn of Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, and Peter Gallagher to scream, bump into things, and come off as incompetent. In the new fright flick 13 Ghosts, the bumbling quartet is Tony Shalhoub, Embeth Davidtz, Matthew Lillard, and F. Murray Abraham - lots of acting ability there, but you wouldn't know it from the crummy piece of horror shlock they're stuck in. Based on a cheapo 1960 movie that was nakedly designed as a showcase for 3-D-esque technology, this year's grab-the-bucks-on-Halloween-weekend-and-run release features some terrific art direction - the glass-and-mirrors mansion the cast is stuck in is impressive - but substitutes ear-splitting sound effects for scares and witless one-liners for dialogue, and as in 1999's double play of dopiness, it makes its capable cast look like refugees from an Ed Wood project. Though he disappears early and is therefore the luckiest performer on the scene, F. Murray Abraham in particular needs to have a long talk with his agent before accepting more bargain-basement scripts; he once played Salieri, and now he's become a Salieri.
NOVA 6 INDEPENDENT SERIES
An Oscar nominee and a potential Oscar nominee make their Quad Cities debuts in the next week, as Moline's Nova 6 Cinema continues its six-week series of independent releases. The Oscar nominee is Everybody's Famous! , one of last year's Best Foreign Language Film contenders, which will run from Saturday, November 3, through Tuesday, November 6. Written and directed by Belgium's Dominique Deruddere, this comedy centers on a working-class father who kidnaps a pop diva in order to get worldwide recognition for his daughter, a wannabe singer who, alas, is wholly untalented; it's Scorsese's The King of Comedy as a subtitled farce.
The potential Oscar nominee is The Deep End, running at Nova 6 from Wednesday, October 31, through Friday, November 2, which has been receiving rapturous reviews since its late-summer release; no less a critic than The New Yorker's David Denby has called it "the best American movie of 2001." In this modern-day noir, Tilda Swinton stars as a mother who goes to enormous lengths to cover up the murder of her son's lover, and the results of her actions are as twisted and unpredictable as those in the Coen brothers' classics Blood Simple and Fargo. Swinton and writers-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel are being hailed as definite Academy Award candidates, and for creepy Halloween-themed thrills, Lord knows the movie will be more enjoyable than 13 Ghosts.