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Schmaltzy Is as Schmaltzy Does

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 03, 1996

If Forrest Gump were a lot smarter, he might resemble the protagonist of "Phenomenon." Directed by Jon Turteltaub from a script by Gerald DiPego, this hokey hymn to the common man is soupy and semi-mystical in the flaky manner that has characterized such uplifting movies as "Mr. Holland's Opus" and "Field of Dreams."

Set in the generic small town of Harmon, the movie presents a picture of American life so neighborly and old-fashioned that it seems to spring directly from reruns of the old "Andy Griffith Show." Other towns may have social problems, but not Harmon, where everybody knows everybody else and citizens leave their doors unlocked, even at night. It's a quiet place with average people, perfectly happy living unremarkable "normal" lives.

George (John Travolta), the film's auto mechanic hero, is just another of these simple townspeople. Around Harmon he's known for his magic touch with cars. Otherwise he's a nice guy, though not too swift. For months he's been trying to learn Spanish, but just can't get the knack of it. And he's such a pushover at chess that his friend Doc (Robert Duvall) is tired of beating him.

On the night of his 37th birthday, however, a freak occurrence changes his life forever. Wandering around after his birthday party, George pauses to admire the night sky when suddenly he is zapped by a bright, white light so powerful it knocks him off his feet.

But that's not all it does. Soon, George is beating Doc at chess and rattling off instructions in flawless espanol. Unable to turn off his teeming brain, George stays up all night, reading two or three books a day, and conducting elaborate experiments in advanced crop production.

During the day, George devotes himself to less lofty pursuits, namely winning the heart of Lace (Kyra Sedgwick), a young divorcee living in town with her two kids.

The movie takes a dramatic turn when the townspeople start to become suspicious of George's powers. Some are frightened by him, some are angry (they think it's a trick), some think of him as the Second Coming.

Turteltaub and DiPego tend toward this last view. As the movie develops, George's upward-spiraling IQ appears to put him in direct contact with the cosmic powers of the universe. Before long, he's predicting earthquakes and eavesdropping on conversations between maple trees. His message -- and the movie's -- is that everything in creation is linked together through the spirit; that we are all part of the same immense, universal life energy.

If this all sounds slightly moony, it's because it is. Still, well-intentioned sappiness is something we can deal with; the lack of any genuine dramatic conflict is a more damaging shortcoming. Once George gets his big brain, the filmmakers can't quite figure out what to do with their hero. As a result, "Phenomenon" showcases Travolta's abundant charm and easy likability but little else.

When in doubt, the filmmakers fall back on Travolta's charisma to bail them out. What they should have done is surround him with engaging supporting characters and a story that doesn't trail off into vague musings about the power of the human spirit. Sedgwick is spunky as George's love interest, but the character is a disaster, and the actor suffers for it. Duvall's performance, on the other hand, is brimming with cornpone gusto.

Now and again, Travolta flashes the goofy smile he used to light up "Get Shorty," and there's a thrilling edginess later in the picture. Unfortunately, there is too little tension and too much playing to the audience. Travolta's charm is a formidable asset, but charm alone can't make this new age fable fly.

Phenomenon is rated PG.

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