Just nine months after Hollywood Pictures released Powder, a sentimental science-fiction fable about a sweet-natured outcast with magical mental powers, Touchstone Pictures -- which, like Hollywood, is another arm of the Disney empire -- gives us Phenomenon, a sentimental science-fiction fable about a sweet-natured outcast with magical mental powers.
Neither of these films is likely to figure prominently on anyone's resume in years to come. But you have to give this much of an edge to Phenomenon -- unlike Powder, which gained unwarranted notoriety when it was revealed that its director was a convicted child molester, the new film shouldn't attract angry picketers or generate rude jokes about Disney's commitment to family values. In fact, Phenomenon, which really is a slightly better movie, may very well entertain those ticket buyers who enjoy weepy sentimentality as a staple of their movie-going diet.
John Travolta continues to traipse along the comeback trail in the lead role of George Malley, an ordinary fellow transformed by extraordinary circumstances. This is the first uncomplicated nice guy Travolta has gotten to play since 1993's Look Who's Talking Now, the kind of movie that made it necessary for him to have a comeback in the first place. Compared to the colorful and career-reviving characters he played in Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty, George is a trifle bland, even after he begins to demonstrate telekinetic abilities. Travolta's performance is largely unremarkable, though it is long on charming smiles and soulful expressions. Even so, his charisma is such that, even when running on half-speed, it's still strong enough to captivate an audience.
George is a not-too-bright, not-too-dumb auto mechanic in a small Northern California town. He's shy and tongue-tied around Lace (Kyra Sedgwick), a divorced mother who's new to the area. But when it comes to joking and drinking with his buddies, he's easygoing and ingratiating. At least, that's how he is until the night of his 37th birthday. He wanders outside of his favorite bar, where a festive celebration is in progress, and is suddenly struck by what appears to be a blindingly bright light. What is it? An alcohol-induced hallucination? A gift from extraterrestrials? A side effect of Scientology? For a long time, Phenomenon is evasive about the exact nature of what happens to George outside the bar. (Late in the plot, we get a less-than-satisfying explanation that, all things considered, is something of a cheat.) But it's very clear that, whatever happened, George will never be the same again.
At first, the changes are minor. George develops an insatiable appetite for reading and learning, to the point of devouring three or four books a day. More important, he remembers -- and fully comprehends -- everything he reads about any subject that interests him. In no time at all, he's smart enough to play chess with the town's wisest resident, Doc, an avuncular physician played by Robert Duvall. Doc is slightly miffed when George actually beats him at the game, but he gets over it. And he's positively delighted when George reveals a newly developed ability to move objects merely by pointing at them. Unfortunately, many of the other townspeople aren't nearly so accepting. There's plenty of nervous talk when George accurately predicts an impending earthquake, then locates a missing child by "sensing" the little boy's hiding place. People begin to view George with equal measures of dread and derision. Only Doc, Lace and Nate (Forest Whitaker), George's best friend, are willing to remain in George's corner.
Working from a screenplay by Gerald DiPego, director Jon Turteltaub (Cool Runnings, While You Were Sleeping) does his determined best to alert the audience whenever Something Important happens. Just to make sure we don't miss anything crucial, Turteltaub pours heaping portions of Thomas Newman's syrupy music all over key scenes. And yet, despite that, Phenomenon manages to sustain interest, and even provoke a random thought or two, until DiPego and Turteltaub drag in some suspicious government agents, the same sort of party poopers we've seen in too many other movies. Things only get worse, and even more contrived, with the arrival of Richard Kiley as a doctor who wants to perform a kind of autopsy on George without bothering to wait for George to die. By that point, it's a tossup as to what has gotten more out of hand: the free-floating paranoia or the four-hankie sentiment.
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The supporting players are blameless. Duvall and Whitaker are quietly impressive in roles that might seem a lot sketchier without them, while Sedgwick is very appealing as a character who exists primarily to help Travolta wrench tears from the audience. Even Kiley does a thoroughly professional job in a virtually unplayable role. Along with Travolta, these fine actors manage to make Phenomenon a lot more involving than it has any right to be.
-- Joe Leydon
Directed by Jon Turteltaub. Starring John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Forest Whitaker and Kyra Sedgwick.