Directed by Jon Turtletaub. Starring John Travolta, Kyra Sedgwick, Forest Whitaker, Robert Duvall. (1996, PG, 126 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 12, 1996
As popular entertainment goes, Phenomenon is a “no-brainer.” It tells the story of what happens when George Malley (Travolta) -- an average Northern Californian guy who fixes cars for a living, putters in his garden, goofs around with his loyal small-town pals (Whitaker and Duvall), and unrequitedly romances a stand-offish artisan (Sedgwick) -- is touched on his 37th birthday by an inexplicable white light that just as inexplicably causes him to become an instant genius. It's one of those things you just have to take on faith -- though that's something of a stretch in the “show me” medium of movies. Phenomenon flails about in a search for direction: inspirational drama, romance, social study, government intrigue… nothing fits or is explored very deeply. Same thing with George. Now that he's gifted with such facile intelligence, his life has become an emotional mess. He spooks a lot of the townies, he can't sleep at night, and he still can't win the girl of his dreams. Though he tries to use his intelligence for good (examples: he learns the Portuguese language in 20 minutes and thus saves a boy dying from botulism, he invents all manner of solar energy devices, he tries to share his thirst and enthusiasm for knowledge with the incredulous locals), the movie emphasizes the heavy burdens that come with George's new mental prowess. The combination of the genius' social ostracism with heavy dollops of mystical reasoning has caused many to compare Phenomenon with last year's truly strange Powder. A better comparison would be that old 1968 chestnut Charly that won Cliff Robertson an Academy Award for his role as a feeble-brained human lab rat whom scientists infuse with miraculous intelligence potion. Anyone remembering how dismally that affair turned out will be able to detect the handwriting on Phenomenon's walls, down to the medical mumbo-jumbo that's used to make sense of the nonsense that has gone before. Phenomenon's closing medical rationalizations are even less credible than its original “white light” theory. Director Jon Turtletaub is becoming something of an expert on how to sucker huge audiences with preposterous but carefree film diversions. His recent box office successes include the fairy-tale romance While You Were Sleeping; the fish-out-of-water comedy about a Jamaican bobsled team, Cool Runnings; and the witlessly silly kids' action comedy Three Ninjas that makes the average Mighty Morphin Power Rangers escapade look as though it were directed by Akira Kurosawa. Up until now, the recent Travolta revival could be chalked up to luck, happenstance, and Quentin Tarantino's knowing exactly how to use him in Pulp Fiction. With Phenomenon, Travolta's on his own and forced to carry his own weight and the Travolta we witness here has more in common with the vacuous Vinnie Barbarino and the circumstantially victimized Boy in the Plastic Bubble than any of his infinitely cooler and savvier characterizations. And though he's clearly working hard to deliver, the picture's only phenomenon resides in the title.