What this modestly scaled picture crucially lacks, however, is a guiding intelligence of its own. Given screenwriter Gerald DiPego's basic set-up, the film could have gone in any number of promising directions: eerie sci-fi, a tragic tale of a man isolated by his genius, a Preston Sturges-like comedy of a little man who has greatness thrust upon him, a mystical or quasi-religious look at an unexplainable occurrence or, perhaps most intriguingly, a bracing examination of the wages of high intelligence in a society increasingly dominated by the lowest common denominator.

What this modestly scaled picture crucially lacks, however, is a guiding intelligence of its own. Given screenwriter Gerald DiPego’s basic set-up, the film could have gone in any number of promising directions: eerie sci-fi, a tragic tale of a man isolated by his genius, a Preston Sturges-like comedy of a little man who has greatness thrust upon him, a mystical or quasi-religious look at an unexplainable occurrence or, perhaps most intriguingly, a bracing examination of the wages of high intelligence in a society increasingly dominated by the lowest common denominator.

Instead, director Jon Turteltaub has taken the easiest road, emerging with a soppy, soft-headed disease-of-the-week-style piece that sentimentalizes or opts out of every interesting issue the script raises. He allows the story to veer, in a sloppily unfocused way, from fantasy elements to teasingly unrealized suspensemotifs and extremely low-voltage romance. The added specter of a terminal illness may set in motion the tear ducts of the easily moved, possibly to the film’s commercial benefit, but this tacked-on element thoroughly sidetracks the picture from engaging the potentially provocative issues it raises.

TX:A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation of a Barbara Boyle and Michael Taylor production. Produced by Boyle, Taylor. Executive producers, Charles Newirth, Jonathan Krane. Directed by Jon Turteltaub. Screenplay, Gerald DiPego. George Malley (Travolta) is a small man in a small town, an agreeable auto mechanic who raises vegetables at his rural Northern California home but can’t get a date for his 37th birthday party. Taking a break from the beer bash, he wanders outside and is promptly struck down by a blinding light from the night sky, whereupon he returns to the party.

Very quickly, however, he finds himself a changed man. He speaks Spanish, plays chess, reads several books per day, can’t sleep due to his restless curiosity and, most strikingly, possesses electromagnetic powers that enable him to move inert objects. Flexing further, he predicts an earthquake, locates an ailing boy who is hiding away and generally comes to embrace a soulfully heightened, spiritually generous view of humanity.

Despite all his accomplishments and unsullied likability, he still can’t get anywhere with foxy single mom Lace (Kyra Sedgwick), but he keeps working on her. In the meantime, he cleverly fixes up his lonely guy best friend Nate (Forest Whitaker), just as he lands in hot water with the FBI, which views George’s unparalleled intelligence as some kind of threat to national security.

Similarly, some of the small-town types are made insecure by the fact that their old friend is no longer a no-account like they are. They begin gossiping that he’s actually an alien or perhaps an impostor. The local doctor (Robert Duvall) conducts his own tests, and the film comes as close as it ever does to proposing an interesting thesis when it momentarily equates too much intelligence with impending death.

Still, even when the stretch marks of over-elongation are most evident, Travolta keeps things watchable. This is the first entirely sympathetic, non-criminal role he has played since his comeback two years ago, and the grinning, straightforward appeal is still very much there.

Sedgwick is classy as the wary object of his affections, and Whitaker and Duvall warmly fill out the emotional aspects of their very decent, friendly characters.

Turteltaub’s direction invariably focuses on the obvious element in every scene, pointing the audience toward intended meanings rather than allowing viewers to discover anything on their own. Many transitions are abrupt or awkward, and the feeling of gracelessness is further accentuated by a song score (supervised, amazingly, by Robbie Robertson) that jarringly plunks down generally insipid soft rock tunes into nearly every scene in which there is no, or limited, dialogue.

Final act could have used significant streamlining and, at more than two hours, pic is decidedly too long for what it is.

Phenomenon

Production

Phenomenon (Fantasy drama -- Color)

Crew

Camera (Foto-Kem color, Technicolor prints; Panavision widescreen), Phedon Papamichael; editor, Bruce Green; music, ThomasNewman; executive soundtrack producer, Robbie Robertson; production design, Garreth Stover; art direction, Bruce Alan Miller; set design, Richard Fernandez, Lori Rowbotham; set decoration, Jay Hart; costume design, Betsy Cox; sound (Dolby), Ronald Judkins; special visual effects, Sony Pictures Imageworks; assistant director, Geoff Hansen; casting, Renee Rousselot. Reviewed at AMC Century City, L.A., June 17, 1996. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 124 min.

With

George Malley ... John Travolta Lace Pennamin ... Kyra Sedgwick Nate Pope ... Forest Whitaker Professor Ringold ... Jeffrey DeMunn Doc ... Robert Duvall Dr. Wellin ... Richard Kiley Niedorf ... Brent Spiner Ted Rhome ... Vyto Ruginis Jack Hatch ... Bruce Young Jimmy ... Michael Milhoan Banes ... Sean O'Bryan Al ... David Gallagher Glory ... Ashley Buccille Tito ... Tony Genaro Ella ... Elisabeth Nunziato The notion that human beings use something like just 10% of their brain capacity provides the springboard for "Phenomenon," a movie that lives up to a similar fraction of its potential. The "Twilight Zone"-like premise, of a simple man who suddenly finds himself endowed with exceptional mental powers, generates some undeniable interest, and John Travolta's sympathetic performance as a Joe Everyman transformed into a latter-day Einstein may provide this soggy tale with the key it needs to become a sleeper hit.

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