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Film review: Phenomenon

Published: Saturday, July 6 1996 12:00 a.m. MDT

Wags will probably call this one "Forrest Gump Gets Smart." But it's actually "Charly," the movie adaptation of the famous short story "Flowers for Algernon" - about a mentally deficient young man who is turned into a genius through a scientific experiment, only to discover that being brainy isn't all it's cracked up to be.

"Charly" won Cliff Robertson an Oscar, and, of course, Tom Hanks won for "Forrest Gump." Will "Phenomenon" do the same for John Travolta?

Never say never.

There's no question that Travolta's shaded performance is one of the highlights of "Phenomenon," in which he plays George Malley, a small-town dunce who is knocked to the ground on his 37th birthday by a strange shock of light in the midnight sky. When he wakes up, George finds his brain is working overtime.

We've all seen the statistics that suggest humans use only a small percentage of their brain power. The "what if?" premise here expands on the idea, as someone who uses even less than the average person suddenly has his cerebral wattage boosted a hundred times or so.

That same night, George finds he can't sleep, so he begins reading books like never before, comprehending more and reading faster. Soon his appetite for self-education is insatiable, and he's devouring several books a day.

But reading isn't enough, so George begins formulating a variety of experiments, which range from the development of a cheap fuel source to a powerful crop fertilizer. He even becomes a matchmaker, easily finding a potential mate for his lonely best friend Nate (Forest Whitaker, who has fun with his character's Diana Ross obsession) - though it takes a bit longer to bring around the woman who interests George, a suspicious, cynical divorced mother (Kyra Sedgwick).

But the local doctor (Robert Duvall) worries when George begins demonstrating telekinetic powers - he can make inanimate objects move simply by concentrating (he also has the ability to predict earthquakes) - and especially when George's friends begin to abandon him.

Eventually, George makes a mistake by responding to a coded signal that Nate picks up on his ham radio, and the feds descend upon him - in the government-paranoia style that is typical of Hollywood.

The latter plot development, which takes over the film's final third, is by far the weakest link; instead of building suspense it becomes a bit laughable in its ste-reo-types, echoing dozens of sillier thrillers. Especially in the protracted third act, which offers at least three endings. (And at more than two hours, the film is too long.)

Still, the small joys offered by this optimistic, hopeful parable, and the small-town characters on display (especially those played by Duvall and Whitaker) are well worth the wallow. As for Travolta, he clearly understands the importance of subtlety on the big screen, since the medium tends to exaggerate every nuance.

Director John Turteltaub, whose light comic sensibility enlivened a couple of other cliche-ridden efforts - "While You Were Sleeping" and "Cool Runnings" - is better with the lighter moments than those that are sentimental. And he should have encouraged screenwriter Gerald DiPego ("Sharkey's Machine," the recent TV movie "Nothing Lasts Forever") to steer clear of some of the more obvious we've-seen-them-all-before moments here. (And can we please put a moratorium on stupid music-video transition sequences?)

Happily, however, the film manages to maintain its character-driven nature, despite the gim-micks. And the resolution is satisfying, without a ridiculous sci-fi answer to its questions . . . though the film's previews suggest that it could have gone off in that direction.

"Phenomenon" is rated PG for a few scattered profanities and vulgar remarks, brief partial nudity (Duvall mooning Travolta through a window) and though Travolta and Sedgwick do end up in bed together, the sex is offscreen.

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