The so-called phenomenon in Phenomenon first shows itself when a likable but dim-witted auto mechanic played by John Travolta suddenly starts beating brainy Robert Duvall at chess. A little while later, the ex-dumbbell learns Portuguese in twenty minutes, just in time to save a lost boy's life. He cleverly engineers a romance for his lonely best friend, becomes a matchless wit at the dinner table and turns into a walking seismograph who can predict earthquakes. He invents an amazing new kind of fertilizer and can break top-secret Air Force codes just for fun. Best of all, he slaps together a car that runs on cow farts.
In other words, Forrest Gump is back in town--this year's version of him, anyway. Pre-phenom, Travolta's George Malley is not quite the village idiot, because he plays a fair game of checkers and can open his own beer cans. But once a mysterious light from the heavens zaps him, he blossoms into the town know-it-all and, because he's such a good guy, begins spreading his own selfless Gumpitude all over Northern California, in the usual Christlike proportions. No shrimp boat or ping-pong for George, though: He's deep into photovoltaics, the revolutionary potential of Lady Chatterley's Lover and the immortality of the human life force. Not bad for a guy who just days earlier was tightening lugnuts and wondering how to keep a rabbit out of his vegetable garden.
The movie industry's current taste for childlike adult heroes, I suspect, has nothing to do with recapturing our innocence or with reproducing the feel-good magic of Frank Capra movies. It's all box-office bingo, and George Malley is another vehicle to cash in. Trouble is, Phenomenon has the prefab, been-there-done-that quality of a TV movie. The spiritual uplift is processed, the inevitable tragic tearjerking of the last two reels is manipulative, and the object lesson (Use Your Smarts for Good Stuff) has gone around the block so often the cops could run it in for questioning.
The movie's several plot twists have seen better days, too. Once just one of the guys, poor George is soon ostracized by most of his old friends after he starts tearing through three or four library books every night and, like our old friend Carrie, begins levitating fountain pens and cracking mirrors via telekinesis. And what movie genius, instant or otherwise, hasn't had a visit from sinister government agents bent on exploiting his gifts for evil?
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Oh, and there's a girl. A woman, that is. In this case, it's Kyra Sedgwick as a wary divorcee with two cute kids who finally comes to understand and love the hero. The lonely best friend is Forest Whitaker, and Duvall plays the venerable and canny small-town doctor, complete with a little red bow tie. The whole thing is more than a little icky-poo, and when our man George, frustrated by his new powers, shouts at the sky, "Is somebody there trying to tell me something?" you can very nearly hear the studio chieftains muttering behind him: "Find me the next Gump, Harry, and you'll get points off the top of the gross!"
So it goes now that the Lovable Moron Full of Folk Wisdom has become the main man out Hollywood way. Call me a curmudgeon, but I kept hoping Jean-Claude Van Damme would pop in and knock the self-righteous crap out of ol' George before he had a chance to explain the first thing about quantum physics or the philosophy of art. Or to sprinkle any more of his fabricated goodwill around the joint, like so many handfuls of sugar.
Screenplay by Gerald DiPego. Directed by Jon Turteltaub. With John Travolta, Kyra Sedgwick, Roberts Duvall and Forest Whitaker.