Phenomenon, 1996. Directed by John Turteltaub. John Travolta, Kyra Sedgwick, Robert Duvall, Forest Whittaker.
This new age feel--good movie/Scientology tract has two things exactly right going for it: John Travolta's assured performance as an ordinary guy who is suddenly the superman incarnate and its premise (borrowed, by the way, from Charly and Flowers for Algernon). This is a gentle, Capra-esque fantasy in which a regular, decent guy is bequethed a gift of incredible powers of perception and intelligence. He is not any less bewildered because of it--his neighbors begin to fear him and he becomes more and more isolated as he outstrips his ordinary friends--he is still human and he is still decent and nice in spite of his experiences. Travolta here is absolutely dead on. He suppresses the cockiness that has been so much a part of his screen image over the years and utilizes the magnetism he found somewhere between Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty to completely disarm the audience. In this movie, he announces himself as one of the stars of the ages when given the chance to shine (no more talking baby movies for him, one hopes). That both of these elements are so dead on target only makes the fact that the movie distrusts them so an even harder pill to swallow. This is a deceitful movie which places both of these elements in an America that exists only in nostalgic fantasies and Norman Rockwell paintings--an America that seems perpetually drenched in the amber light of late summer where you don't have to lock your door at night because all your neighbors are good buddies. The Dionysian ugliness that peeks through the cracks in the second half of this movie are a crock of shit given this elysian background. The structure of the movie has problems, too. It fails to convincingly scare the audience with Travolta's abilities (and it needs to do so to work--we don't have any idea of what motivates the secondary characters as they distances themselves) even when it is given a pretty good opportunity. Its storytelling is particularly lax, lurching forward between relatively good scenes with musical interludes populated by music that will stroke the good feelings of its target audience (25 to 35 year old couples). Nothing wrong with that, mind you, but it ain't storytelling. This movie fairly sops with sentiment, some of which it even comes by honestly--but would-be Frank Capras of the world never, ever seem to remember that in drama and literature, sentiment is pure poison.
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