on July 03, 1996 by Christine James
   Few screen actors are as out-and-out likable as John Travolta. That's one reason why his "Pulp Fiction"-catalyzed `comeback' was so ballyhooed by press and public alike. He exudes a winning combination of charisma and sincerity that just makes you want him to succeed, both in real life and in his cinematic incarnations. Thus, he was the perfect choice for the lead role in "Phenomenon," in which the protagonist, George Malley, is someone the audience must both respect and have compassion for. Travolta evokes both admiration and pathos as George, a sweet-natured small-town mechanic who is liked by everybody. But one night, he is struck by a mysterious force that suddenly bestows him with genius mental abilities and the power of telekinesis. A trio of friends (Forest Whitaker, Robert Duvall and Kyra Sedgwick) support George through his harrowing and frightening metamorphosis, but from most of the other townsfolk, he is met with callous rejection born of fear.
   This film is a more successful attempt to convey the same messages through a similar construct as another recent Buena Vista movie, "Powder." Both are about sensitive, benevolent, supergenius telekinetic men who try to inform others about the interconnectedness of the universe, but are instead ostracized for their differences. But "Phenomenon" is much more finely orchestrated, pushing all the right buttons every time. We are allowed to identify with "Phenomenon's" protagonist much more readily, and the `bad guys' aren't malevolent as much as scared and ignorant, as opposed to the black-and-white townspeople-with-torches-type villains in "Powder." Scripter Gerald DiPego and director Jon Turteltaub know how to build excitement and delight by showing George perform lots of ascendingly impressive cerebral feats. And Travolta knows how to pull the heartstrings, starting out endearing and ending up Christ-like. The horrific loneliness of being so mentally above everyone is touchingly rendered. Sedgwick's character, Lace (aka the Single Mom Love Interest), is adverse to romance due to being burned by a no-good man creature, but she is written a little too angry, and is too blind for too long to the fact that George is officially the Perfect Man. But it makes the inevitable uniting that much more sweet. In addition to rating four stars, "Phenomenon" warrants three hankys and one full-sized crying towel, thanks to expertly (if at times somewhat contrivedly) moving writing and performances. Starring John Travolta, Kyra Sedgwick, Forest Whitaker and Robert Duvall. Directed by Jon Turteltaub. Written by Gerald DiPego. Produced by Barbara Boyle and Michael Taylor. A Buena Vista release. Drama. Rated PG for language and mild sensuality. Running time: 117 min
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