John Travolta, with fine support across the board, makes George Malley an invitation to think about compassion and humanity.


A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.

"Phenomenon" is a sweet, sad movie with a lot on its mind. How well it succeeds will depend entirely on your own mind-set. If you are open to an idealized view of friendship, of landscape, and of people, you will like this movie. This is not the sweetness of syrup but the gentle vision of what life might be like if people were good.

Operating from a rock solid sense of themselves, John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Kyra Sedgwick, and Forest Whitaker risk appearing both sentimental and vulnerable in this movie that might have been saccharine but isn't. They take Gerald DiPego's literate script and invest their characters with an entirely credible goodness that simply has to spring from the integrity of the actors and their director, John Turteltaub.

George Malley (John Travolta) is a quiet, kind auto mechanic who has a best friend named Nate (Forest Whitaker), a doctor called Doc (Robert Duvall), and an unrequited love named Lace (Kyra Sedgwick), a single mom trying to earn her living by weaving chairs. Deserted by her husband, Lace is not about to put her children or herself in harm's way again. "I tried so hard not to love you," she will say later on.

This group lives in an it-could-be-anywhere farm town whose heart beats slowly. No one hurries in Harmon. On the night of George's 37th birthday, after a party given in the local bar by his friends, George crosses the street in a profound sense of well-being and is enveloped by an eerie, spinning light that knocks him out and leaves him, on awakening, with a revitalized brain that is both brilliant and insatiably curious. The dormant parts of his brain are now his to use.

The great strength of the movie lies in George's simple acceptance of the phenomenon along with his determination to enjoy his new abilities to the fullest. George being George, his instinct is to turn each new insight into a blessing for his friends. With characteristic self-effacement, he thinks of himself as everyone's potential. "Everything," he says, "is on its way to somewhere."

His friends, especially Nate, must relearn the ways of their old buddy, and they approach the task with bewilderment and love for a friend who has powers neither he nor they can understand. These are four fine people on an expedition into the human spirit.

Then, suddenly, as if a meditation on the human spirit couldn't sustain his story, writer Gerald diPego jumps into today's front pages by bringing in the FBI to bumble its way into branding George a security risk. That development, along with another off-key plot twist, jolts us out of the serenity that encouraged us to consider genius in the hands of a good man.

John Travolta, with fine support across the board, makes George Malley an invitation to think about compassion and humanity. That's quite a feat for a small and amiable movie that takes two wrong turns.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 499
Studio : Touchstone
Rating : PG
Running Time: 1h57m

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