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Ho-Hum 'Phenomenon'

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 Sedgwick).

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 that okay?"

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 chain-smokes.)

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 handle it."

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 mooning.

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