approach adopted: humanist/ slightly auteurist
Those two words used to send millions of women (and men) all around the
world into a dancing frenzy back in the seventies. He could claim credit
for the modern equivalent of the estrogen brigades (for the net crazy
“X-philes”) of Fox Mudler and Assistant Director Skinner. But nowadays,
equipped with a paunch and that same disarming smile, he is proving himself
to be more than a passing fever. Together with the great cast of this
latest offering from the Disney studios, Travolta lifts “Phenomenon”
(tele-kinetically, no less) above the mass of mediocre summer releases.
For doubting thomases who thought his brilliant gun-slinging portrayal in
“Pulp Fiction” was just “luck of the draw”, his portrayal of a simpleton
with nothing but heart should re-categorise Travolta from “comeback kid” to
“talented actor”; he did not allow “Phenomenon” to degenerate into “Forrest
Gump Part 2″. The similarities are obvious: a nice, simple fellow earns the
favour of Lady Luck and does extraordinary things. Yet, that’s all there is.
“Phenomenon” packs a higher reality-density than “Gump”. Countless scenes
in “Gump” had me trying to pull wool over my eyes just to stop myself from
laughing at the sheer ludicrousness. Despite the fact that going to the
movies is about the suspension of disbelief, it should never be equated with
treating the audiences as hoards after hoards of idiots. George Malley
(Travolta), on the other hand, comes across very naturally (and believably)
as a small town simpleton who doesn’t know what to make of his very strange
birthday “present”. One flash of light and he flips through calculus books
in a flash. It’s not heavenly intervention, but unleashing the possibility
of what the mind is truly capable of.
Yet, George quickly learns that he isn’t capable of something: affecting
what other people think. Small-town insecurities and parochialism soon turn
once friends into dumber-than-simpleton fools; with the exception of three
very well casted characters.
Kyra Sedgwick plays Lace, George’s love interest. The agony of having gone
through the loss of her perfect family show through her smiles. Despite
being intent on keeping George at arms’ length, head-strong Lace falls in
love with George, with no small help from her two precocious kids. Gerard
Dipego’s choice of the two kids as parallels and inversions of the adults’
relationship is simply brilliant. It is the little girl who extends herself
to George when Lace plays the silent, “I want to keep my life simple” girl.
Lace’s little boy, however, displays a careful attitude towards George.
Both kids externalise, through inversion, the tension between George and
Lace. It is an extremely in-your-face thematic twist that utilises
brilliant irony; made more awe-inspiring for the fact that it doesn’t
degenerate into black humour.
Forest Whitaker plays Nathan Pope, George’s frequency band/ FM/ AM-dabbling
friend. Last seen behind the cameras as the director of “Waiting To
Exhale”, Whitaker’s small but important role lets us in on the tiny world of
the small town person. One hobby, one obsession is all their little brains
can take. Constantly chanting Supreme’s hits (which I unabashedly sang
along to), he displays a fear of change and of learning new things. Despite
these “shortcomings”, his innate far-sightedness extends beyond the
narrow-minded and cloistered Northern Californian townsfolk psyche. His
unflinching friendship to George is sufficient testimony to it.
And then there is Robert Duvall as Doc. His recognition of his own
feelings and his courage in expressing them carves yet another facet into
this movie about the human spirit. Though the emphasis on George did
marginalise Duvall’s character and waste his talent somewhat, the incredible
resonance in his little speech justified the inclusion of Doc.
Both Nate and Doc shares the same operative sentiment in “Phenomenon” :
George did not change. How ironic then, that the theme song by Eric Clapton
and Babyface is titled “Change The World”. It is another skillful play at
the plot and its characters. The chorus goes : “If I could change the
world/ I would be the sunlight in your universe/ You would think my love was
really something good/ Baby, if I could change the world.” In a rather
subtle and implicit way, George did change the world. But the “George”, the
core of his own human identity, never changed. Yet the George that Lace
fell in love with wasn’t the George that changed the world, but “George”
whose love was really something good.
The rest of the movie soundtrack is also worth a listen, especially Aaron
Neville’s rendition of the Van Morrison classic “Crazy Love”. It is a pity
that the music isn’t commercially available as Thomas Newman did a perfect
job scoring the movie. It takes us from the privacy of George’s mind to the
expanse of lush outdoors with sweeping ease. That coupled with good
cinematography, the continuity and feel of the movie was never punctuated
with nasty staccatos.
The ease at which everything blends had something rather abstract and
important as an underlay: the unity of nature and man just has different
permutations and combinations; but they will all boil down to the same
thing. It is already being impressed on us when the celluloid first rolls
via the panoramic and zoomed-in shots of the idyllic Californian scenery.
Everything has its place in nature. Everything has its own energy. George
may be able to rattle off different names of flowers, but ultimately, it is
going to be beautiful flowers for a beautiful girl. It is a very basic
film. It is about love, innocence and life. It is the re-affirmation of
love, innocence and life.
Of all the beautifully quaint aspects, one thing stood out from all the
little gems in the movie – Travolta’s smiles. Besides being thoroughly
disarming, they could convey ten thousand different sentiments. The most
believable simpleton smile on celluloid. You will be drawn into displaying
a wide grin yourself.
You will be very tempted to curl up next to your loved ones when watching
this movie. You will be very tempted to cry on your boyfriend’s shoulder.
You will be very tempted to say that “Phenomenon” is going to be one of the
best films you have watched this year.