Phenomenon

John Travolta. 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,