Phenomenon

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Garage owner George Malley sees lights in the sky on his 37th birthday and discovers that (mentally speaking) he is suddenly twice the man he used to be; but whilst his friends are variously astounded and affrighted, the FBI are intensely suspicious when he starts replying to their coded signals. All George really cares about is getting to know single mother Lace, but she is strangely resistant to his powers.

Apologies for opening with a rhetorical question, but here goes: How well favoured is Phenomenon? It promises a fascinating tale of an ordinary man who somehow acquires extraordinary abilities, features a hip-again (post-Pulp Fiction, pre-Battlefield Earth, let’s-not-mention-Michael) John Travolta, and best of all has a title which can’t be spoken without singing ‘doo doo da doo doo’* immediately afterwards. With the director of the charming Cool Runnings on board, how could it possibly wrong?

The dimpled one is George Malley, an unassumingly charming car mechanic who passes the time in his quiet farming town with friendly neighbour Nate (Forest Whitaker), playing chess with his avuncular doctor (Robert Duvall), and completely failing to get a date with mistrusting single mother and chair maker Lace (Kyra Sedgwick) even though he makes sure her furniture sells – by buying it all himself. On the night of a party to celebrate his birthday, George begins walking home but is knocked out by white lights descending from the sky, and when he comes to he is suddenly much better at chess. Not only that: he can speak Spanish like a native, think with impeccable logic, and move objects with the power of his mind, though these abilities come at the cost of being able to sleep.

Surprisingly, Doc Brunder is merely impressed by George’s new abilities, and whilst George himself uses them to read several books a day and try out new inventions, his main goal is to play with secret codes picked up on Nate’s shortwave radio and get himself a date with Lace; he does both, but his eerie prediction of an earthquake and Lace’s subsequent discovery of her chairs in George’s house freaks her out and she shuns him, much to the disappointment of her children Al and Glory. Lace doesn’t even come round when he uses his gifts to rescue a young Portuguese boy, but Berkeley professor John Ringold (Jeffrey DeMunn) does and he invites George to meet various heads of department to share his brilliant ideas.

The FBI intervene and question both George and Nate over their replies to the radio messages, but soon George has a bigger problem: his brain, full of thoughts, begins to overwhelm him and his mysterious behaviour makes the townspeople recoil in fear and suspicion. It takes the loving arms of Lace to bring him back to himself and support him through what turns out to be a short and decisive illness.

You can tell that Phenomenon [doo doo da doo doo] is meant to be a small-town fantasy in the same vein as Cocoon, only with a jarring twist that catches the viewer unawares (and which I will shortly reveal, should you wish to stop now and come back after watching the film). The problem is, the film is so sappily written that George’s powers are treated not with astonishment and immediate consideration of how they could serve the public good, but with the forbearance of a tiresome party trick. Phenomenon struggles to prioritise its two main plot strands, namely George’s pursuit of Lace and the pursuit of George by Bruce A. Young’s FBI agent, resulting in a film which never really gathers a head of steam or builds to any great point.

There’s a mildly amusing interlude with Brent Spiner as a befuddled FBI tester, a mildly sensuous love scene where Lace gives George a shave and a haircut [two bits!], and a mildly irrelevant subplot wherein George throws the Portuguese boy’s mother in Nate’s path; but George’s powers remain frustratingly untapped and the viewer is left mulling over rotten similes in the script such as the one about people being like a half-eaten apple or Duvall’s enigmatic ‘Every woman has her chair.’

To be fair, the film is nicely acted, Travolta filling the screen with charm and Duvall delivering a performance which deserves better material (in a better film); but Turteltaub – or rather writer Gerald Di Pego – doesn’t make the most of them, instead relying on George’s dog and Lace’s moppet children to force warmth and homeliness into the picture. Whitaker tries his best but is miscast as Nate the Diana Ross-obsessed farmer, his appearance owing more to the demands of demographic profiling than storytelling sense.

Were Phenomenon simply a dumb science-fiction film about a man who acquires special powers through outside forces, it would be flawed but fun. Di Pego, however, goes one step further and has George being both cursed and blessed with a brain tumour that is killing him as well as exponentially evolving his brain. This doesn’t make the film remotely sad, although it should, and introduces a quasi-religious element (a cripple boy is presented to George) which I don’t like but don’t really mind. The real difficulty is that a natural explanation for seemingly supernatural events makes George’s telekinesis completely absurd, a nonsense which is handy for trailers but ruins any verisimilitude the film might otherwise claim. I have heard of people whose personalities and mental functions have changed due to brain trauma, but for Phenomenon to link George’s amazing powers with a normal illness stretches credibility past all limits.

The rest of the film is simply not focused or solid enough to brush aside the silliness of this decision, so by the time it trundles to its conclusion (George refuses open brain surgery, and escapes from having it forced upon him to have sex before he pops his clogs) the whole enterprise has foundered on the rocks of the viewer’s reason.

Phenomenon isn’t a complete pile of doo doo but is a long way from being phenomenal. Perhaps the latter was never likely, but with the assets at Turteltaub’s disposal there was a much better – or at least more sensible – movie waiting to be made.

NOTES: I know, I’ve looked and there’s nary a review in existence that doesn’t do it. Why should I be the only one who doesn’t? I’d look like a fool.

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