Film Reviews

Sappy Psychic

Jon Turteltaub's Phenomenon wants so desperately for you to like it that you feel guilty if you don't. In an attempt to create a Capraesque fable, screenwriter Gerald DiPego and director Turteltaub stack the deck to make the film's main character, George Malley (John Travolta playing warm and fuzzy) the nicest guy who ever lived. George is a simple, small-town, salt-of-the-earth type (complete with floppy-eared, so-ugly-he's-cute dog) who repairs cars for a living and putters around in his garden for fun. George is such a sweetheart you'd have to be a total bastard not to develop a soft spot for him.

Sex? Drugs? Rock and roll? Not for George. He makes Forrest Gump look like a degenerate. And that's even before the night of his 37th birthday, when George undergoes a mystifying experience that turns him into a genius. Suddenly Mr. Goodwrench discovers the ability to crack top-secret military codes, find lost children, predict earthquakes, and even master rudimentary telekinesis. But if you think all those superhuman powers might go to his head (whence they originate), you don't know George. He becomes downright saintly. Mother Teresa would admire his selflessness.

It never crosses George's mind to cash in on his wondrous gift for personal gain. He could make a fortune just by selling his story to Oprah or A Current Affair. Instead he reads a lot, feeding his suddenly insatiable appetite for arcane knowledge. He applies his newfound mental capacities to solving his friends' and neighbors' problems: George learns to speak Portuguese in twenty minutes! George concocts a fertilizer to grow corn on previously barren land! George plays matchmaker for his lonely best buddy Nate (Forest Whitaker)! George raises gigantic squash! About the only thing George can't do is persuade Lace (Kyra Sedgwick), the new gal in town, to set aside her distrust of men and take a chance on romance with him.

Lace is a single mother of two. Her ex-husband -- the kids' father -- flew the coop years ago, and Lace has never gotten over it. She moved to this small town where she can keep things simple, safe, and predictable. Lace has constructed an emotional wall around herself that only a fool or a hopeless romantic would attempt to penetrate. Naturally, she's the woman George falls in love with. There wouldn't be a movie if he picked someone who offered less of a challenge.

Just as the filmmakers exaggerate George's goodness beyond all reasonable human bounds, so too they overdo Lace's defensiveness. She obviously likes George (who doesn't?). He wins over her kids, but that doesn't crack her shell. He fixes her rattletrap pickup truck. He gives her a bushel of the world's plumpest, reddest, juiciest tomatoes. George even secretly buys all the ugly, uncomfortable wooden chairs A they look like medieval torture devices A Lace assembles by hand and sells (a pretty shaky means of financial support, even by Hollywood standards). Lace's reaction when she finds out George has been purchasing all her hideous handiwork A instead of being touched by George's behavior and expressing gratitude, she flies off in a rage at his "dishonesty" A feels exceedingly harsh. Even taking into account the whole male/female, Mars/Venus dichotomy, most women I know would cut the guy a little more slack than that. They would be thinking, "He's a good-looking straight male with a steady job. He bought my deformed chairs when nobody else would. He loves my kids, and they adore him. And if the guy can master a foreign language in twenty minutes and levitate inanimate objects without touching them, imagine what he could do if I gave him a copy of the Kama Sutra.... Maybe I'll give the guy a break."

But not Lace. Burned by a man before, she'll be damned if she'll make that mistake again. So she keeps her distance from patient old George, who whiles away the hours reading and solving all the townfolks' problems until the day the feds, who have caught wind of George's special faculties, show up at his house. And if you saw E.T., you know what that means: lab coats. Suits. Tests. They haul George away to some cold grey place to study him. Like the extraterrestrial, George just wants to go home.

Sorry, dude. Like the man said, you can't go home again. The authorities finally release George, but now that his mysterious powers are common knowledge, everybody treats him differently. TV news crews follow him around. Suspicious of his paranormal skills and quantum leap in IQ, even George's drinking buddies give him a wide berth. Only the wise old town doc (Robert Duvall) and best amigo Nate stand by their man. But there's one upside to George's new outcast status A it arouses Lace's sympathies (among other emotions). Phenomenon aspires to be Capraesque, but it layers on the sunny sentimentality to a degree that would have embarrassed that paragon of positivism. Capra's characters may have been good guys in the end, but they always had a dark side to overcome or a temptation to resist along the way. George Malley is pure as the driven snow from Phenomenon's first frame through its final fade. Even before he acquires his extraordinary capacities, George seems too good to be true, too selfless and beneficent to be human. Director Turteltaub's motives are less noble -- to fashion a Gump-like savant, and cash in at the box office by offering up a relentlessly ingratiating, calculated-to-seem-ingenuous hero.

The whole "what is the meaning of genius?" angle amounts to little more than a clever dodge to mask Phenomenon's conventional simple-mindedness. Jon Turteltaub has carved out a little niche for himself in Hollywood by directing inane but mildly charming movies with premises that could have come from supermarket tabloid headlines. His big hit While You Were Sleeping, for example: "Man Awakens from Coma and Proposes to Woman Who Saved His Life!" Or his 1993 Disney flick, Cool Runnings: "Jamaican Bobsledders: No Snow? No Problem." And now Phenomenon: "Mysterious Force Turns Grease Monkey into Einstein!" When they finally find Bigfoot, Turteltaub's the guy to direct the screen version of his legend -- starring Sandra Bullock as the love interest.

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Todd Anthony
Contact: Todd Anthony