The Spacey-man Cometh

In K-Pax, Kevin Spacey is still stuck in an O’Neill play; Intimacy is harshly unromantic. 

Kevin Spacey is in his element in K-Pax, which is too bad: A major actor should cultivate a lower threshold of shame. Spacey plays a fellow who calls himself Prot (pronounced “Prote”), who claims to have beamed in on light particles from a distant planet. He might be a real E.T. or he might be a head case, a man so shattered by some repressed trauma that he put thousands of light years (metaphorically speaking) between himself and the human race. No sooner has he materialized (or something, it’s purposely muzzy) in New York’s Grand Central Station than he’s whisked away to a psychiatric institute, where Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges) must determine the nature of this dementia—if dementia it is. So Spacey gets to be ironically detached from the action and later, under hypnotic regression, gruelingly in the throes of primal horror: to show off, in a single role, his cool, hipster’s superiority and his Method acting chops. No wonder he’s so insufferably smug.

Much of K-Pax consists of Spacey grinning like Stevie Wonder behind sunglasses (Earth light is apparently too bright), taking dippy steps, and bobbing his head as if attached to an invisible Walkman. When he isn’t playing theater games with his therapist, he’s saying gnomic but miraculously effective things to his fellow patients, who emerge from under their sundry pathologies faster than the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion after the Wizard of Oz hands them diplomas, medals, etc. He announces that “all beings have the ability to cure themselves”—a statement so all-encompassing that it would throw even Andrew Weil (Spontaneous Healing) for a loop—then adds, “Doctor … patient … curious distinction.”

The director, Iain Softley, and the screenwriter, Charles Leavitt, must have had so much faith in their lead actor’s postmodern tour de force that they avoided grappling with basic narrative questions, among them why an extraterrestrial with limited time on Earth would want to spend it locked up alongside delusional schizophrenics. When Powell brings Prot to meet some of the country’s most brilliant astrophysicists, he dazzles them by plotting the trajectory of his alleged home planet; then they disappear from the movie. We’re supposed to believe that, having had their minds opened, these scientists would obligingly go about their business and let Prot languish in a mental ward.

Perhaps they sensed that he and his shrink had larger philosophical questions to explore. Prot explains that where he comes from, there is no such thing as family: Children are collectively raised and no emotional bonds are formed. Is this the truth or a brilliant defense mechanism? In any case, we’re meant to register the hypocrisy that underlies Powell’s incredulity at K-Pax family values: He barely pays attention to his wife (Mary McCormack) and children, and he no longer speaks to the son from his first marriage. Will Powell cure Prot or will Prot cure Powell? (Doctor … patient … curious distinction.) Either the spaceyman is going to render psychoanalysis absurd, or the psychiatrist is going to break down the lie at the core of this tortured soul’s façade.

The latter would make Prot a 21st-century version of Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s The IcemanCometh—which Spacey was reportedly rehearsing when he read the K-Pax script. That might account for his enthusiasm for this dreck, but what about these other great actors? Here is Alfre Woodard as yet another humorless African-American-female superior, issuing cold ultimatums to her humanistic underling. David Patrick Kelly can’t play a sneering punk forever, but did he have to transform so suddenly into a tender, twinkling oldster? And then there’s Bridges, who once did the sentimental-E.T. thing himself. He brings all the emotional truth he can muster to this dopey role, beginning groggy and self-encased until he penetrates the mystery; then he carries on as if he thinks he’s playing O’Neill, too.

I don’t want to give away the ending, but I’m dazzled by how the filmmakers finally finesse the whole issue, so that the audience can have its bubbleheaded sci-fi inspiration and its harrowing psychological realism, too. Their solution doesn’t represent an artistic triumph, but it’s more resourceful than anything that has preceded it. That and the actors’ conviction almost makes you think that K-Pax is more than a gooey slab of Oscar-season kitsch. The music—New Age plink and shimmer—should dispel any doubts.

It’s hard to say what K-Paxians would make of the definition of family in Intimacy; they might think its characters’ inability to find happiness in each other’s company is a sign of human growth. The movie, directed by Patrice Chéreau (from a script he wrote with Anne-Louise Trividic), is a glancing adaptation of an infamous, semi-autobiographical Hanif Kureishi novella, one that’s largely set on the night before a husband abandons his wife and two sons. I found the book brilliant (Kureishi goes deep into the oppressiveness of domestic life) and hateful (Kureishi doesn’t go deep into the oppressiveness of his own narcissism); but in any case it serves here only as a springboard for Chéreau’s powerfully unsettling meditation on the meaning of that title concept.

In common with Kureishi’s protagonist, Jay (Mark Rylance) has decamped from his old life and now lives in a squalid tenement, which he straightens every Wednesday to prepare for galvanic sex with a woman (Kerry Fox) whose name he doesn’t know. The couplings border on hard core (the film carries no MPAA rating), and Chéreau and his cinematographer, Eric Gautier, bathe the lovers in a milky blue light, their pale limbs entwined so that at times you can’t tell them apart. (The lighting and compositions evoke the painter Lucien Freud.) Is this intimacy—is something real being transacted? Or is any connection—apart from great sex—a hopeful delusion?

Intimacy doesn’t answer the question, which makes it all the more tantalizing: This is an emotional puzzle movie. After a spell, it evolves into a variation on Last Tango in Paris (1972), in which Jay, at first enthralled by the anonymity, begins to long instinctively for something more. He trails the woman to a pub that houses a basement theater; it turns out that she’s a semi-professional actress called Claire and that she’s now playing Laura in The Glass Menagerie. Jay also bumps headlong into her husband, Andy (Timothy Spall), and young son. Peculiarly discombobulated over Claire’s emotional life outside their trysts, he begins to tell Andy about the woman he sees on the sly every Wednesday. And Andy increasingly gets the thrust.

The subtext in the scenes between Rylance and Spall is battering—a harshly unromantic counterpoint to the lyrical Tennessee Williams psychodrama beneath the pub in which they drink and shoot billiards. These barbed non-confrontations are the more wrenching because neither actor sentimentalizes his character. Rylance—an exhaustingly brainy actor (he did the finest Hamlet I’ve ever seen, in Cambridge, Mass.)—speaks in a reedy and insinuating tenor, his even cadences clearly designed to keep chaos at bay. Spall makes Andy a cold little fat boy, an emotionally spoiled child who regards his wife with a sense of entitlement. Her continuing life with him would not be happy, but she’d know, at least, what she was getting. And there is, of course, the child …

More and more, Intimacy becomes a morass—but that’s not, in this context, a bad thing. A beautiful woman whose large features have begun to sag, as if from the weight of her own irresolution, Fox’s Claire drifts indeterminably through these bleak middle-class environs. In the course of giving acting lessons, she berates an older woman (Marianne Faithful) for being untruthful in an improvisation, but it’s clear that she’s projecting her own feeling on the exercise. Her mind has begun to make quantum leaps, and we can almost read them: Chéreau’s febrile camera is extraordinary at suggesting the roiling patterns of thought in a first-person short story. When Claire and Jay begin to discuss what each had been looking for, what each was thinking during their mostly wordless sexual encounters, the writers are clearly fumbling along with the characters. These are uncharted waters. Just like true intimacy.