By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 05, 1996
John Travolta exudes saintliness with such ease, it's no effort to believe in him.
Who knew Vinnie Barbarino of the sweathogs could be . . . beatific? In
"Phenomenon," he's a good-natured car mechanic called George Malley (all
similarities to George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life" seem less than coincidental)
who has difficulties with just about everything: learning Spanish, keeping rabbits out of
his garden and making romantic headway with attractive single mother Lace (Kyra
But when a shaft of light strikes him to the ground -- yep, it's that kind of movie -- he
wakes up a budding genius. Suddenly, George is nonchalantly trouncing his
physician-friend Doc (Robert Duvall) at chess, solving his rabbit problems and
speaking fluent Spanish.
His learning curve is astoundingly exponential. Soon, he's reading four books a day,
culturing tomatoes the size of beach balls, and summoning monkey wrenches with
more than personal magnetism. In other words, we're in the same territory as
"Charly," "Powder" and "The Lawnmower Man."
George's encounter with his untapped potential is initially enjoyable, thanks to
Travolta's charms. And the movie, directed by Jon Turteltaub, maintains a pleasurable
balance between lightheartedness and seriousness. "That's telekinesis!" exclaims Doc
with kid-like glee when he sees George's ability to move objects.
"Yeah," says George. Then, with an equally childlike reaction, he asks the doctor: "Is
Following the prevailing rule in Hollywood, "Phenomenon" stretches itself until it
snaps. When George feels subsonic frequency waves and detects earthquakes ahead
of time, he attracts the attention of seismologists. And when his ham-radio pal Nate
(Forest Whitaker) picks up Morse code signals, which George playfully responds to,
the egghead finds himself in hot water with the FBI. Next thing you know, George
(now heavily stubbled) is answering questions from a federal interrogator. (In the
facile kabuki of Hollywood, you know the interrogator's evil because he
While "Phenomenon" attempts, tritely, to ascend into mind-blowing significance, it also
plummets into a pit of sentimental mush. What's the use of genius, goes this picture's
cheesy argument, without heart? Gag me with a bent spoon. Lace, an extremely
available mother of two, takes an excruciatingly long time to accept George into her
life. She (or rather, scriptwriter Gerald DiPego) finds specious reasons to delay the
inevitable romance. Lace, who makes rather bad furniture, hits the roof when she
finds out he's been secretly buying up her chairs to make her feel better.
"I just asked you for one thing, George," she says. "The truth. And you couldn't
Lace holds out until the very end when almost everyone, it seems, has turned against
George. At this point, the movie becomes a second-rate tear-jerker, which absurdly
deifies George and makes a mockery of Travolta's acting work. Which leaves us
marveling at the wrong phenomenon: Hollywood's penchant for shooting down stories
of wonder with mediocre missiles.
PHENOMENON (PG) -- Contains sexual situations, minor profanity and one
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