Wednesday July 3, 1996
"Phenomenon" is a predigested film for undemanding audiences. Well-meaning and convinced it has something of value to say, its "Reach Out and Touch Someone" sensibility ensures that all its satisfactions will prove hollow, and so they do.
While director Jon Turteltaub's previous films ("Cool Runnings," "While You Were Sleeping") were equally soft and fuzzy, they benefited respectively from a clever concept and adroit casting, neither of which is a factor this time around.
Not that John Travolta wasn't the obvious choice to play George Malley, a regular guy whom strange things happen to, and the film trades heavily on his innate likability. But Travolta has been down this path before, and his just folksy performance is starting to feel awfully familiar.
A lifelong resident of a friendly Northern California town where bicycles are welcome on Main Street, auto mechanic Malley has never been considered the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. But everyone in Harmon, from his Diana Ross-obsessed pal Nate (Forest Whitaker) to kindly old Doc (Robert Duvall), loves George just the way he is.
Everyone except Lace (Kyra Sedgwick), who recently moved to town with her two children and memories of a bad marriage. The only thing worse than Lace's past is the god-awful willow furniture she currently makes, but even though George is crazy about those chairs and is given to endearing remarks like "I'd love to get my hands on your carburetor," Lace is determined to keep her life single and simple.
Things start to change for George at midnight on his 37th birthday, when an honest-to-gosh Light From Outer Space hits him square in the face. All of a sudden the man who spent half his high school career in detention finds that his brain is as nimble and creative as a young Leonardo.
As detailed in Gerald DiPego's cloying script, much of "Phenomenon's" action revolves around George's nonstop accomplishments, so numerous there is barely time to ooh and ah over each one. He learns Spanish overnight, Portuguese in 20 minutes, reads books by the dozen, throws words like "photovoltaics" into everyday conversation and develops telekinetic powers, not to mention the ability to predict earthquakes.
Given the determined anti-intellectualism of many recent American movies ("Forrest Gump," "Benny & Joon," "Untamed Heart," "Regarding Henry"), it's interesting to note that "Phenomenon" makes George as nonthreatening a thinker as possible. And lest we think it might be a good thing to be smart, he's portrayed as scared, chagrined and burdened by his mental powers.
But being a reluctant superman is not enough for many of George's Harmon neighbors, who are fearful and suspicious about this newly minted genius. And even though George can break the most secret and sophisticated military codes, he still has trouble getting the skeptical Lace to favor him with more than a perfunctory smile.
The real villains of the piece, simplistically enough, turn out to be the minions of America's military and scientific establishments, too small-minded to appreciate that George is capable of solving all the world's problems, every last one, if only someone would give him a chance.
And even though George's comments run to "Everything is on its way to somewhere" statements that are best suited as mottoes for Metro Rail, "Phenomenon" insists that we take him seriously as an avatar of the human potential movement. If I can get more out of life, his message runs, anyone can. With sentiments like that, this contrived film goes down easily enough, but it's not headed anywhere worth following.
Phenomenon, 1996. PG, language and mild sensuality. A Barbara Boyle and Michael Taylor production, released by Touchstone Pictures. Director Jon Turteltaub. Producers Barbara Boyle and Michael Taylor. Executive producers Charles Newirth, Jonathan Krane. Screenplay Gerald DiPego. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. Editor Bruce Green. Costumes Betsy Cox. Music Thomas Newman. Production design Garreth Stover. Art director Bruce Allen Miller. Set decorator Jay Hart. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes. John Travolta as George Malley. Kyra Sedgwick as Lace Pennamin. Forest Whitaker as Nate Pope. Robert Duvall as Doc. Jeffrey DeMunn as Professor Ringold. Richard Kiley as Dr. Wellin.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times