Utter piffle featuring a lovely, subtle performance from John Travolta, Phenomenon tries so hard to be a heart-tugging, tear-jerking, up-with-people crowd-pleaser that it just about strangles whatever life Travolta brings to the picture. He plays George Malley, an amiable small-town fellow who likes to tinker with cars, gardens, and the affections of a standoffish chair maker named Lace (Kyra Sedgwick). On his 37th birthday, George looks up into the twinkling night sky only to be zapped by a powerful white light. Next thing you know, this cheerful goofus is amazing his buddies (including Bird's Forest Whitaker) by predicting earthquakes, speaking fluent Portuguese, and winning every game of chess he plays with the town doctor (Robert Duvall, looking vaguely puzzled by his tepid little role).
George becomes a freak to be feared: ''Why,'' gasps one yokel, ''he's readin' two or three books a day!'' Phenomenon wants us to love simple, suddenly complicated George, but there's an undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in the script by Gerald DiPego that makes this feel-good movie wearyingly depressing. The film suggests that in late-20th-century America, to work at gaining knowledge is to be weird a cause for deep suspicion. The audience I saw Phenomenon with laughed derisively at a shot of George paging through a calculus text, as if casual erudition were the silliest thing imaginable. Fortunately, Travolta himself refuses to exploit this attitude he plays both the genius and the pre-genius as equally worthy fellows.
Whenever Phenomenon isn't fixed on George's brain busting, though, it's sentimental and awfully slow. The romance between George and Lace takes forever to get going. Lace is a cold fish for reasons never fully explained, which leaves the talented, grave Sedgwick up the character-development river without a motivational paddle. Then, when the couple finally do get intimate, it's shot as a cornball music video, with Lace lathering up stubbly George to give him a sensuous shave while Aaron Neville croons Van Morrison's ''Crazy Love'' on the soundtrack. Phenomenon (directed by Jon Turteltaub, the guy who sedated us with While You Were Sleeping) would be pretty unbearable were Travolta not so consistently charming. C-