Friday, October 14, 2011

Phenomenon (1996)

Sugary, Syrupy Romantic Tearjerker!

Phenomenon is an mood upsetting fantasy that exemplifies much of what I adore and what I detest about Hollywood cinema. This movie gets so many things right that it could have been a magnificent little romantic drama, but instead it opts for cheap melodrama and unwanted sci-fi overtones (Maybe Travolta wanted to showcase his Scientology connections!)

First off, it places us in an tempting background - California farm country (Northern California to be specific)- with carefully selected images of rolling hills, morning sun on a barn, the sway of treetops above a farmhouse, the call of coyotes at night…those kind of scenic imagery. Then, we meet George, an friendly auto mechanic and farmer who lives alone, but who has a good friend named Nate who also lives alone with his ham radio and his Diana Ross albums. George has another good friend in the affable country doctor, named Doc of course, who wants to teach George to play chess. More than anything, George wants to get to know an detached woman named Lace who has moved to town with her two children to start a new life following a bad marriage.

Such a sweet and poignant movie seemed poised to emerge from this premise, this superb setting, these pleasant characters. I wanted to see George slowly break down Lace's resistance with his charisma, his graciousness, his handy familiarity with trucks, and the support of his friends.

This movie could have worked on that simple and honest level. But, alas, this is Hollywood we're talking about - the great Lego Fun Factory, where real life is something to make people forget about for two hours rather than embrace, and where John Travolta gets several millions for a movie so by God it better be fabulous. So soon we're off on a silly scheme about George having a celestial karmic experience that expands his mind, makes him brilliant and thirsty for knowledge, gives him amazing telekinetic powers, makes him a pariah in the town, and in an especially inept set-up, brings the FBI down on him. Such a plot is, if you'll pardon my French, merde de taureau (bullshit for those who don’t know French!)

Not that this film is a complete waste of time. As many will agree, on its own terms, it's certainly enjoyable. On the plus side, it has a dependable director - John Turtletaub (National Treasure,The Sorcerer's Apprentice); an appealing cast: John Travolta as George, Kyra Sedgwick as Lace, the always reliable Forest Whitaker as Nate, and Robert Duvall especially as Doc, lending the potency and natural charm of his screen presence to a small role.

The locations are naturally beautiful, nicely chosen and evocative, and the orchestral support comes from Thomas Newman, one of the best film-music composers working right now (son of Hollywood great Alfred Newman). He excels at poignant Americana, as he demonstrated in Fried Green Tomatoes and Little Women, among his many others. Unfortunately, and this is so typical of Hollywood, too, Newman's score is bumped aside repeatedly to make room for the less subtle but commercially more viable pop tunes like Eric Clapton's "Change the World", Sheryl Crow's "Everyday is a Winding Road", Peter Gabriel's "I Have The Touch" and many more.

The film has many effectual moments. There is this one fleeting scene I was struck by: George and Lace are alone, and she asks him what he's feeling. He feels happy and in love, and he tells her to remember back to when she rocked her children to sleep as babies, and she closes her eyes and we see the feeling pass through her and joy spread over her face. A touching flash of solo acting from Kyra Sedgwick, a quick brushstroke of Thomas Newman music, and the filmmakers give us a quiet moment of great beauty.

How I would have loved it if this movie had relied on moments like that - if it had taken the road less travelled and earned my tears with a story I could relate to instead of jerking them with flight of schmaltzy fantasy. That would be a movie I could return to. If only they would forgo the daydream once in a while. Real life is so much more sad, heartbreaking and beautiful.

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