Whenever Travolta appears onscreen, one can't help recalling the sexual magnetism that he showed early in his career. Ah, youth! Today he's a pleasantly attractive man, approaching middle age, who appears to have enjoyed many a good meal. And yet he still holds the camera with unassuming ease. Travolta can project a fundamental sweetness that he manages to keep from becoming cloying. He knows just how many lumps of sugar to dole out. His performance in Phenomenon, a silly but touching fantasy, is as gentle and graceful a star turn as you're likely ever to see.
Travolta plays a not-too-bright mechanic in a small, rural town somewhere in Northern California. On the night of his 37th birthday, he looks up at the sky and beholds some sort of astral phenomenon, a milky blast of light, which knocks him to the ground. Was it a tap to the head from some alien force? Perhaps. Suddenly he can play chess like a master, devour books in a single sitting, learn new languages in minutes and predict earthquakes. With telekinetic power, he even makes paper clips dance in the air. The locals are at first impressed, then alienated.
All of this is broadly done—the town exists in Hollywood, not in America—but Travolta's performance holds it all together. There's his pleasure and then elation over his new gift, wistfulness and then sadness as it isolates him from the comparative dumb-dumbs he loves, including Sedgwick, whose strange occupation here is making ugly chairs out of twigs. Phenomenon has been compared to Forrest Gump but, thanks to Travolta, it's the better film. (PG)