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Life As A Movie

Two inspirational dramas debut, but only one rests on a solid foundation


K-PAX Watching two great actors on the order of Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges squander their talents on something as ghastly as K-PAX is akin to spending your savings on the purchase of a fondue restaurant and using its facilities to create nothing more than grilled cheese sandwiches. Offensively sanctimonious, flagrantly derivative and just plain dull (don't see K-PAX without NO-DOZ), this insufferable picture casts Spacey as Prot, who's sent to a hospital's mental ward after he turns up in a New York train station claiming to be from another planet (in the real-world New York, this sort of ranting can be heard on a daily basis and wouldn't even raise an eyebrow, so why the fuss here?). Prot's case comes under the supervision of Dr. Mark Powell (Bridges), who initially dismisses the patient as yet another flake but soon starts to suspect there might be some veracity to the otherworldly claims. The first half of the film plays like Patch Adams minus the bedpans on the feet, as Prot engages in a lot of "cute" behavior (like eating bananas with the peels left on) and offers guidance to his twinkly fellow patients. The second part shifts gears but doesn't get any better: It's like a nightmare version of an actor's theater workshop, as Powell uses hypnosis to learn about Prot's past. Spacey's performance is built on nothing but putrid platitudes and affected mannerisms -- frankly, I didn't think it was possible for him to ever be this bad -- while Bridges' cardboard role is far beneath this fine actor's capabilities.

LIFE AS A HOUSE The title is unfortunate, since it screams, "Look, Ma! I'm a metaphor!" But the wonder of Life As a House is how, with its understated approach and lack of artificial grandstanding, it gives audience members the choice of embracing its symbolic gestures or simply ignoring them outright. Certainly, the film feels a little too calculated at first -- its conflicted characters and sense of irony make it feel like a yard sale version of American Beauty -- but as the story progresses, its empathic nature and some choice performances eventually wear down all resistance to its rollicking charms. Kevin Kline stars as George Monroe, an architect who, upon learning he has cancer, decides to set things right before his time is up. He tries to establish a relationship with a troubled teenage son (Hayden Christensen) who hates him, attempts to make amends with the ex-wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) who left him, and sets about building his own seaside home. That we come to care about George, his family and his neighbors is a testament not only to the fine work by the entire cast but also to screenwriter Mark Andrus (As Good As It Gets), who, even during the more contrived sequences, keeps the emotions real (compare this to Riding In Cars With Boys, in which most characters behave as if they're in a feature-length sit-com). Christensen, incidentally, has been cast as the teenage Anakin Skywalker in the next Star Wars film, and if nothing else, this movie at least demonstrates that he can act.


BANDITS Director Barry Levinson's latest tries hard to be a quirky comedy (God, does it try), but the funniest moment in this criminally overlong picture turns out to be a purely unintentional one. Kate Wheeler (Cate Blanchett), a bored housewife who has hooked up with a pair of bank robbers known as "The Sleepover Bandits," is stunned when she hears one of the crooks (Bruce Willis) mouth the words of the chorus from Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart." "You know that song!" she bleats, as if that omniscient smash single were some obscure Gregorian chant and they were the only two people in the world familiar with it. Grab your chuckles where you can, because Bandits is such a complete mess, even the prospect of seeing Willis and Billy Bob Thornton mix it up fails to stir anything in the audience besides contempt. Like a squeaky axle that won't quiet down over the course of a 500-mile road trip, this grates on the nerves almost from the start, when we realize that Thornton's hypochondriac character is going to spend the entire 125-minute running time whining about his various ailments. Blanchett fares no better as the bargain basement screwball heroine in love with both men, and, for that matter, neither does Jane Fonda's son Troy Garity as the gang's thick-witted driver. Amazingly, even though he's cast opposite Thornton, Blanchett and a Fonda heir, it's Willis who comes out on top: Playing it closer to the vest, he at least provides a respite from all the mannered acting smothering the rest of the picture. 1/2

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