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Phenomenon

Review by Carrie Gorringe


Directed by
Jon Turtletaub.

Written by Gerald DiPego.

Starring John Travolta,
Kyra Sedgewick, Robert Duvall, Forrest Whitaker.

On the eve of his thirty-seventh birthday, George Malley (Travolta) seems to have what the classic song used to call the world on a swing: he lives and works in the closest thing to rural nirvana, one of those quaint, semi-upscale little villages that look so picturesque as to border upon the cliched, and which usually exist only to part gullible tourists from their money. In addition, he is his own boss, the proprietor of the local garage. As if all of this weren't enough, George has been fortunate to live among the same people all of his life (the local doctor, played by Robert Duvall, delivered him), and is well-liked by everyone, so his birthday is the social event of the week. The only worry he has in world has to do with pesky animals threatening to wreak havoc upon his garden, or, at least, that was all he had to worry about until the walk home from his party.

While pausing to take in the wonder of the night sky, George is struck by something -- either lightening or a beam of light -- and is knocked unconscious. After awakening, George discovers that he is not the same man as before. He possesses almost supernatural intellectual powers, as evinced by the fact that he learns to speak fluent Portuguese within twenty minutes of reading a dictionary. Advanced mathematical problems he could do in his sleep -- if he could sleep. Now an insomniac, he reads nearly every hour of the day, and can shatter glass with the force of his anger, as well as predict earthquakes and find lost children merely by discerning their energy. The villagers are understandably wary of this instant shaman in their midst and are beginning to wonder if the old George has been abducted by little green men. At the same time, some sinister government types have also been alerted to George's talents and are starting to get interested. All of this, of course, is interfering with George's pursuit of the lovely Lace (Sedgewick), a divorcee with a strong bitter streak and no interest at all in another relationship. Obviously, George's erratic behavior isn't helping his case very much in either instance.

If Phenomenon sounds very much like a form of Capraesque entertainment, it very much is. Borrowing the insider-as-sudden-outsider motif from It's a Wonderful Life (the names of the lead characters in both films are also extremely similar, with a mere substitution of "Malley" for Capra's "George Bailey") and welding on a plot development or two from Back to the Future for good measure, "Phenomenon" wants to take its audience back to the era in which films provided a sense of the mystery and beauty with the course of everyday life. The film manages to sustain this ambitious goal for about thirty minutes before rigor mortis ineluctably begins to set in, and its arrival is neither subtle nor gradual, as the filmmakers indulge in every hoary and risible cliche possible, permitting a geometrical growth pattern of said cliches as the film proceeds apace. You can hear the film's gears grinding away rather unblissfully when Eric Clapton sings about the joys of nature under an exquisite sunset, or when George and Lace finally get together to the accompaniment of Aaron Neville crooning "Crazy Love". It's almost as if no one connected with this film wanted to risk misunderstandings in the audience, and so decided that mawkishly embarrassing visual/aural tautologies were exactly what the script doctor ordered. The overall impression is one of half-heartedness; it might be suggested that the filmmakers felt that all they had to do was to go through the motions without any sense of personal commitment to the deeper significance of celebrating the struggles of the common man against uncaring forces -- an elemental part of Capra's work. Were the filmmakers ignorant of this significance, or, worse still, betting that they could pass off a pseudo-Capra film to an audience desperate for a break from the avalanche of action-adventure films this summer? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle ground, but such a position doesn't let the filmmakers off easy.

Moreover, there is a strong anti-intellectual undercurrent in Phenomenon, as George is banished from his place in society because of his sudden and overwhelming intelligence; whatever defense the filmmakers might issue on their behalf -- that they are merely demonstrating how wrong it is to exclude people who are different -- is invalid, because, by implication, the film lumps intellectual prowess in with every other form of what is deemed to be socially aberrant behavior. One might have thought that director Turtletaub, the director of last year's charming but inane romantic comedy, While You Were Sleeping, had already mastered the basic skills of entertainment, but it's obvious that Phenomenon represents a step backward in his skill set. Lace unwittingly sums up the prevailing sentiment of the film, as well as her own, when she initially rebuffs George by telling him, "I don't like surprises or complications". She must have been watching the same film as I was.

The extreme level of narrative anomie that pervades Phenomenon is unfortunate, because the acting -- or, more accurately, the minimal level of emoting allowed under the script's limitations -- is strong enough to have carried a stronger film. Travolta, in the George Bailey role, is as likable as expected; his beatific smile in the first moments of the film represents a man at ease with himself. After the transformation, he infuses George with a strong backbone in keeping with the overwhelming personal changes that the character has undergone. On the surface, Sedgewick is all corn-fed, dewy beauty, acting as a great advertisement for the benefits of farm life, but the iciness of her personality is unbearably intense; the real mystery in the film comes from wondering why any man would waste his time pursuing her. In addition, the filmmakers compound the errors in her personality when they make her growing attraction to George appear to be a side-effect of rank opportunism. Duvall pulls his trademark wily, folksy rustic from Tender Mercies and A Family Thing from the mothballs, shakes it out, puts it on and discovers that it fits just fine, even if its shopworn nature is becoming a little too apparent from overuse. As George's best friend, Nate Pope, Whitaker is excellent, keeping in a nice balance between his respect for George and his confusion . But the film simply can't effectively utilize the talent that it has, and Phenomenon for all of its pseudo-Capraesque pretentiousness, is not phenomenal. Much as the movie industry needs to provide sources of good, old-fashioned entertainment on occasion, this grotesque product, clumsily and cynically executed, does not fit the bill.


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