In the summers of 1990 and 1994, two offbeat, quieter films managed
to become major word-of-mouth sleeper hits amid the loud, frenetic action
blockbusters--Ghost and Forrest Gump, respectively. This year, comparable
sleeper status may possibly come to Phenomenon, a slight but agreeable blend
of comedy, drama, and whimsy.
John Travolta plays George Malley, a simple-minded, goofball auto
mechanic who, after seeing a bright light on his 37th birthday, develops not
only vast intelligence but the ability to move objects with his mind.
Naturally, George's new abilities cause a stir in the Northern California
town he calls home, attracting the attention of Berkeley scientists.
However, there is one person he can't seem to get to pay him enough
attention--chair maker and single mom Lace (Kyra Sedgwick), the Jenny to his
Forrest, if you will.
A lot of Phenomenon resembles another recent Buena Vista release
that dealt with supernatural powers, Powder. But one of the big reasons why
this new film is as enjoyable and fun as the other was unwatchable and
ridiculous is its healthy sense of humor. A great move on screenwriter
Gerald diPego's part was to keep George's change a mere physical one, not
also a personality change. George may become a genius, but he is still a
goofball, as shocked as anyone else at his power. Since he remains just an
average guy in spirit, George becomes a much more convincing and likable
character than the straightfaced albino "saint" that is Powder. Vignettes
in which George uses his powers to help others, such as where he tries to
find a lost boy and another moment where he tries to fix his lonely Diana
Ross-loving best friend (Forest Whitaker) up, are funny and cutesy without
being overly cloying.
But that is not to say that there are not moments when director Jon
Turteltaub (While You Were Sleeping) lays on the sap a bit too heavily. By
far the worst part of the film is an interminable "foreplay" scene in which
Lace gives George a haircut and shave while the easy listening sound of
Aaron Neville fills the soundtrack; the moment is so blatantly designed to
be touching and sweet that it left me wanting to gag. In fact, Phenomenon's
calculated manipulative tendencies are what keeps it from falling short of
the level of a Gump. When the tale takes the obligatory melodramatic turn
in the third act, virtually all of the offbeat humor vanishes, and I found
myself not caring as much about the story as I did earlier.
Still, Travolta's effortless charm and charisma kept me emotionally
involved in the picture. He is one of those stars who is instantly likable
from frame one, and he is put to ideal use here--funny, sweet, with a good
sense of self-aware humor. It's hard to imagine anyone other than Travolta
(except, perhaps, Tom Hanks) in the role; he's such a perfect fit. The
supporting cast, including Sedgwick, Whitaker, and Robert Duvall, make the
most of their small but pivotal roles. Star Trek's Brent Spiner is
particularly memorable in a hilarious bit where he (as an FBI researcher)
attempts to test George's IQ.
Phenomenon is not as satisfying or enjoyable as a Ghost or a Gump,
but it certainly has its charms, and that may very well be enough to insure
its place among the top box office grossers of the summer.