Relatively crazy

Film - Philip Kerr on how eccentricity can lead to jail in New York

Nearly every time Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr met for a beer, they argued about two things: space-time and the movies. Einstein believed that a movie could give a complete description of reality, and that there was nothing that was true about the world that a movie could not represent. Bohr, on the other hand, believed that a movie's description of the world was affected by the conditions that made the movie possible in the first place; in other words, Bohr believed that because most movies were financed by Hollywood, that tended to affect their reality. Or lack of it.

"For example," the gloomy Dane would ask Einstein, who was living in New Jersey at the time, "how is it that when aliens visit Planet Earth in a movie, they always seem to arrive in the United States, instead of somewhere else? Let's face it, nearly everywhere in Europe is more interesting and more representative of western civilisation than nearly everywhere in the United States; and while a real alien tracing the well-informed footsteps of Kenneth Clark might well end up in New York, it seems certain that 95 per cent of his peregrinations would take place in the ruins of Rome, the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, the art galleries of Paris and Florence, and the museums of London.

"Is there anyone with a brain who honestly believes that the Empire State Building is more impressive than Giacomo della Porta's dome of St Peter's; or that Central Park is more delightful than the Tuileries? Let's face it, Albert: if, in the end, it's all about relativity, then, relative to the rest of the United States, New York is as good as it gets."

There's much about K-Pax that proves Bohr's point; but I think Einstein would still have enjoyed this new film, by the British director Iain Softley. For a start, K-Pax is set in New York City, and from the very first frames we are led to suspect that Prot (Kevin Spacey) might have arrived through one of those big arched windows in Grand Central Station, as a mote on a beam of sunlight moving through space at 186,000= miles per hour. Later on, Prot proffers an elegant little correction regarding a common misconception of Einstein's favourite equation about the speed of that light. Einstein would surely have approved.

Now, Prot looks like anyone else you might see hanging around Grand Central Station - which is to say that he could use a shower and a shave - but within minutes of his almost anonymous arrival on our planet, his mildly eccentric remarks cause him to be arrested by New York's finest. If New York cops ever started arresting people for sounding a bit nuts, everyone in Manhattan would be behind bars. This is merely the first of several implausibilities that mar what would otherwise be an enjoyable film. Niels Bohr would have hated it.

Prot is committed to Bellevue psychiatric hospital and the care of Dr Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges), a man who, wanting to believe in something other than himself - a common failing in human beings, I am told - starts to entertain the possibility that his apparently delusional patient might just be telling the truth. Conviction continues to elude Powell, however, even when his own brother-in-law, an astrophysicist, tells him that Prot possesses detailed knowledge of a planetary system as yet undiscovered outside of his own observatory. In the end, the only people who believe Prot really is an alien are - you guessed it - the inmates of the asylum, who - you guessed it - become empowered, even cured, through contact with this anarchic fellow patient, who turns all their lives upside down . . . zzzzzzzz.

It's about here that, like a dying star, the whole picture starts to collapse in on itself and K-Pax (also the name of Prot's home planet) turns from last year's dazzling high concept - The Man Who Fell to Earth meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - into this year's black hole.

Sadly, the film-makers themselves never seem able to make up their minds about whether Prot is a genuine alien or just a loony, a case of having your kook and eating it. Consequently, the film leaves one feeling unsure not just about Prot's real identity - the story supplies just as much evidence that he may be nothing other than delusional - but also, more fundamentally, about whether the film works at all.

K-Pax provides more ennui than enigma and, ultimately, Spacey is the best reason to go and see this film. As you might expect, he is very convincing as someone strange and unworldly, who may or may not be an alien. And I am reliably informed that he prepped for the role in Newfoundland.

K-Pax (12) is released nationwide on 12 April