Phenomenon Review

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An ordinary man sees a bright light descend from the sky, and discovers he now has super-intelligence and telekinesis.


The marketing campaign for this fantasy drama tells us “Some things in life just can’t be explained.” That’s misleading advertising, since the film’s colossal boo-boo is in its ill-judged insistence on explaining everything, and in a way few will appreciate. Face it, there has never been much of an audience for whimsical tragedy.
Deceptively, the first hour and some of Gerald DiPego’s screenplay, beguilingly directed by While You Were Sleeping’s Turteltaub, is a Capraesque charmer, busy with smalltown neighbourliness, comedy and dogged wooing. Even the central character’s name evokes It’s A Wonderful Life sentiment. George Malley (Travolta) is a cheerful, simple man with limited gifts: he can fix cars and grow a garden. His sweetness and kindness make him beloved, however (at least by all but the sorrowful divorcee Sedgwick, with whom he is smitten) and his 37th birthday is an occasion on which the townfolk party hearty.
That night, while looking at the stars, George spots a UFO-like light that zaps him unconscious. When he comes to, his intelligence begins to accelerate — as billed, phenomenally — and his newly developed genius is accompanied by strange and remarkable powers, such as telekinesis. George uses his linguistic, scientific and electromagnetic magic to do good deeds — save a life, protect the environment, make a match for lonesome best bud Nate (Whitaker) — but people turn away from him in fear and suspicion of what he has become.
Alas, the mystery, wonder and delightful complications screech to a halt with a dismaying revelation that is grim at best and, most will feel, a cruel cheat. The last half hour reveals that what’s afoot is nothing like what one either hopes. The film is unsatisfyingly different from what it seemed to be.
The saving grace is Travolta’s entirely captivating performance, which keeps you on board long after the plot has derailed. There are, too, nice roles for Whitaker and Duvall as his loyal buddies, and it is refreshing to see smartness linked with goodness and heroism. But yikes, what looked like a sunny smash hit is rained out.

Better than you think