'Phenomenon': smart and sweet Review: A nice guy gets nicer as good feeling fuels a summer film. Stranger things have seldom happened.

July 03, 1996|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,SUN STAFF

Painted in sepia tones from a golden palette of sentimentality, "Phenomenon" courts diabetic coma with its persistent sweetness. Despite all that, it's hard to resist.

John Travolta stars as an auto mechanic in a little farming town that could have been cast in "Field of Dreams." (Is this heaven? No, it's Iowa. I mean, Northern California.) He plays George Malley, the quintessential nice guy, who takes a breather from his 37th birthday party in a local bar to walk out in the street and toast the stars.

Suddenly wham! A bright light descends from the sky and knocks him off his feet. And quickly, inexplicably, he begins to manifest unusual intelligence. He beats Doc (the always brilliant Robert Duvall) at chess for the first time. He starts reading several books a day. He learns Spanish overnight and Portuguese in 20 minutes. He finally solves that cold fusion thing (OK, maybe not). His transformation, as directed by Jon Turteltaub ("While You Were Sleeping"), is funny and wondrous.

Through it all, George is more himself than ever -- kind, generous, naturally charming, thanks to Travolta -- and employs his newfound talents to almost Jesus-like effectiveness. Among the people he reaches are his farmer buddy Nate (likable Forest Whitaker), who's shy to the point of hermitage, and Kyra Sedgwick as distrustful single mom and chair-maker Lace (Hollywood nomenclature alert!).

Of course, it's only a matter of time before the big bad government decides that George is up to no good, and there's a particularly funny scene in which Brent "Data" Spiner, as a government inquisitor who is testing George's intelligence, finds himself completely outmatched by his grumpy charge.

George Malley, not unlike Frank Capra's George Bailey, is just about too good to be true. And little details nag as his friends grow fearful of him and he finally faces a personal crisis -- for instance, why does he keep ordering beers and not drinking them?

Don't go in expecting a science-fiction lark about alien invasion; this feel-good film takes a sudden turn into stark drama, and a lot of the magic leaves it. Still, it says a lot of nice stuff about living for the moment and living for others, and it really is a film that parents can enjoy with their older kids. That's a rare enough gem, as well as a nice break from all the gunfire in theaters this summer. You won't have to duck this "Phenomenon."

Pub Date: 7/03/96

'Phenomenon'

Starring: John Travolta and Kyra Sedgwick

Directed by: Jon Turteltaub

Released by: Touchstone Pictures

Rated: PG (mild profanity)

Sun score: ***

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