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'Phenomenon': Travolta triumphs in sentimental tale

Movie review

July 4, 1996
Web posted at: 8:20 p.m. EDT

From movie reviewer Carol Buckland

(CNN) -- "Phenomenon" is a movie that can't seem to make up its mind what it wants to be. It's part sci-fi, part romance, part meditation on the nature of the human mind, and part manipulative snivel-fest. In short, it tries to do too much in too many ways, and it never lives up to its potential.

Still, it's well worth seeing for many reasons, most notably, John Travolta. He turns in a warm, wonderful performance as George Malley, a small-town mechanic and all-around good guy whose life is transformed by an extraordinary force on the evening of his 37th birthday.

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To put it simply, George becomes a super-genius. He absorbs information like a sponge. He's alive with ideas. He uses a larger percentage of his brain than any human on Earth.

At first, local folks -- his lifelong friends -- are intrigued and amused. Then they become afraid. The government gets wind of what's going on and thinks George may be a security threat.

Travolta shines, not so much as a movie star, but as a whole-hearted human being. He holds this film together.

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There's edgy, effective work from Kyra Sedgwick as Lace, the single mom George tries to court. Sedgwick, who was the best thing in last summer's "Something to Talk About," is a star-in-waiting. One of these days she'll get an above-the-title role worthy of her special talents.

Forest Whitaker, who demonstrated his directing talents with "Waiting to Exhale," does a touching job as George's ultra-shy buddy. And the always excellent Robert Duvall contributes a strong turn as the local doctor who intuits the ramifications of George's transformation, although he can't explain what's happening.

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"Phenomenon" isn't perfect. The pacing falters in the final scenes. The script shies from exploring the truly provocative question raised, relying on crass sentimentality in the end. Jon Turteltaub's direction is flawless in many small scenes, as when Lace's little daughter gives George a hair ribbon to tie a bunch of flowers. But it stalls out in big moments of "meaningful" speechifying.

Still, Travolta is terrific! And in a movie season dominated by brainless action flicks and big explosions, "Phenomenon" is something magically different.

This film is rated PG. There is some mild profanity, a little bit of violence and one very chaste bed scene.

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