Phenomenon – 1996

Director John Turteltaub
Starring John Travolta, Kyra Sedgwick, Forest Whitaker, Robert Duvall, Brent Spiner
Screenplay Gerald Di Pego

When one ponders the fate of the film Phenomenon, it really shows how much time has passed since its début in 1996.  At the time it was a sizeable hit, never reaching #1 but certainly lingering in the top 10.  It’s silently faded into the abyss of good movies never thought of since 9/11 and the Congresses and presidencies of Bush and Obama removed hope from the list of human attributes.   Maybe that’s why this movie is needed now.

“…What have you always wanted to know about and learn?”

There is an air of innocence and wonder in the film Phenomenon.  Not since Field of Dreams and nothing after this film has enjoyed the world for what it has to offer in the way that this one does.   It’s intentionally simple small town premise is a mask for the depth of the human created when a ray of light hits George Malley (Travolta) on the night of his 37th birthday.  Everybody knows one another and everyone is friendly. There are no ulterior motives, other than George’s attempt to connect with Lace (Sedgwick).  Smart as he is, he still can’t figure that one out.

“Al, everything is on its way to somewhere. Everything.”

George is on a simple path.  His wish is to have a good garden, run a good business and support the good in his life.  There is no explanation to the light that blows into his life, there is only an expression of its effect on his mind.  Unable to sleep, just like he is unable to stop thinking, George immerses himself into any topic he sets his mind to.  This makes him a quick study, but it also sets him at odds with his contemporaries.  Watching this could have been a clunky experience, but with Travolta, Duvall, Sedgewick and Whitaker in top form, it feels completely organic.  The chemistry between all four is remarkable.   One can completely buy Travolta as  the unambitious sort who is satisfied with his lot in life, if he could only get the girl.

Lace: “So, let me ask you something, George. When a man comes over with a basket full of tomatoes, what is he expecting? Dinner?”
George: “Nah, no, no. Just hoping.”

Sedgwick’s movement from arm’s length to being wrapped up in Travolta is totally conceivable in the post-me generation era.  In the 50’s and early 60’s, George Malley would be a widow with the kids.  Here, Lace is on her way away from somewhere and on its way to somewhere else.  Their relationship should be a minor part of the story, but it allows us to see the genuine quality of George’s heart, completing the picture of an advanced human being.  The hair cutting and shaving scene is as remarkably tender moment on-screen as I have witnessed.

George: … and this I wrote for you, Nate. This is about soils and some of my own thoughts.
Nate: Your thoughts?
George: Yea.

The friendship between Nate and George has the feeling of true kindness.  There respect between the two is a microcosm of the kindness expressed in the town.  Two lesser actors might have turned this crucial relationship into cheese, but these actors are too experienced and wise to go that route.  When one sees them in action, it easily recalls the Lou Reed line “…life is forever becoming…” as they take their feelings for each other for granted in a good way.

“Why do ya have to tear him down? What are ya so afraid of? What have you got to lose? He wasn’t selling anything! He didn’t want anything from anybody! He wanted nothing from nobody! Nothing! And you people have to tear him down so you can sleep better tonight! So ya can prove that the world is flat and ya can sleep better tonite! Am I right? Am I right?… I’m right… The Hell with all of ya. The Hell with everyone of ya.”

This is the kind of film Robert Duvall could do in his sleep.  You know he’s fully committed though, when the first thing you see of him on film is his ass, through a second story window.  Just like Travolta, Duvall uses an economy of dialogue to get the deepest messages through.   As good as it is, it’s hard to say whether this film would work at all without Duvall.  He illuminates the basic parts of the script, like when the boy is missing in the orchard, and makes them something more.

George: Hey, would you, uh, love me the rest of my life?
Lace: No. I’m gonna love you for the rest of mine.

The greatest gift Phenomenon gives is not the Jedi-like powers that are bestowed upon George Malley.  Rather, its in the person to whom they are bestowed.  George Malley’s connection to the world is strong.  This is expressed beautifully in the way that the wind flows through the trees.  George discovers this and it moves him in rhythm with them.  His understanding of the dance of life is a connection that is difficult to relay.  The film succeeds because it concentrates on love over intelligence.  Indeed, it makes the intelligence that much greater because it is tied to that love.

At this point I hadn’t expected Travolta had this kind of film in him.  He was in the prime of his second resurgence, brought on by Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty.  He had mastered the role of meat-head, and guy who was more than just a meat-head.  Here he was much more vulnerable here, and his character accepting of what he understood, but curious of what he does not.  Not many actors could carry off this kind of simpleton with such a degree of grace, humility and kindness.  Brief as it was, I appreciate the light his character brought to life.

He had help, of course.  Turteltaub is a good director for Disney whose track record is solid but not great films.  Gerald Di Pego is a veteran screenwriter whose done everything from Murder, She Wrote, to Incredible Hulk TV movies to weepy romance melodramas like Message in a Bottle.  Nothing in either of their resumes indicated anything close to this kind of work.  The direction and the writing is subtle, comfortable when it needs to be, and plainly truthful when that is required.  The soundtrack, engineered by Robbie Robertson, is some of his best work.  You won’t see his name very much in the credits, but this work is all him.

This film should be seen by everyone.  It gives hints, if no real strong evidence of what a life worth living is about.  The easy-going nature of the film has allowed Phenomenon to be swallowed up by louder films with less to say.  It should not be forgotten though.  I know that I won’t.  A brilliant light was left behind with me.

(***** out of *****)

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