(1996, PG) John Travolta (George Malley), Kyra Sedgwick (Lace Pennamin), Forrest Whitaker (Nate Pope), Robert Duvall (Doc), Jeffrey DeMunn (Professor Ringold), Richard Kiley (Dr. Wellin), David Gallagher (Al), Ashley Buccille (Glory), Tony Genaro (Tito), Brent Spiner (Dr. Bob), Ellen Geer (Bonnie). Music: Thomas Newman. Screenplay: Gerald DiPego. Director: Jon Turteltaub. 123 minutes.

Tags: Uplifting, Love Story, Possibility

Notable: Brent Spiner cameo for comedic effect; Robert Duvall’s butt

Rating: ★★★★★

George Malley (Travolta) is a small-town simple guy – not stupid at all, just basic, direct, what a lot of people would call “ordinary.” On the night of his 37th birthday, he is suddenly struck by what seems like some sort of light from the night sky and is transformed into something beyond a genius. He no longer sleeps, reads several books every day, can absorb a language in minutes. He discovers that, as his gift grows, his old friends in town start to pull away from him; he becomes feared, isolated, and ostracized. The FBI, the colleges, the doctors, the intelligence services, the desperate, the angry, all target him in one way or another, trying to stop him from continuing or to get something from him. The one thing he knows is that the journey he’s on will not let him go, and that he must see it through to whatever end it may bring.

There are a number of interesting aspects to the story in this film, not the least of which is the ability of humans to fear, dismiss, and discount anything that is different, even if it’s benevolent. Becoming different, outgrowing the mold, changing who you are, growing… these things are seen as somehow dangerous to those who are settled into a rut that comforts them by the mere fact of not being challenged (or, to use the word so often selected for this idea, “threatened”). To test this theory for yourself, simply start doing your job a little bit better than before; your colleagues will be certain that you’re trying to take their jobs away.

Above all, however, this is a movie about the simple truth of human potential. The people in this movie who really matter are the ones who are stunned yet curious, awestruck yet welcoming of the possibility. As George (Travolta) keeps saying, this phenomenon called “life” is just a kind of cooperation, a willingness to accept the idea of doing, growing, becoming. Doc (Duvall) is the man who urges George’s friends to keep trying, to look at their own abilities and grow them to their best ability. As has been true throughout the ages, most people try to deny what they can do because it’s easier, and because becoming more and better people is too strange, too dangerous to try.

The story itself is a simple one, with a simple, ordinary man making simple choices and discoveries that end up having consequences that shake other people’s worlds. The trouble lies not with George and what happens to him; the trouble begins with George taking what happens to him and working with it. That first choice — simply accepting who and what one is — is the difficult to make. The second — to grow and improve who and what one is — is even more difficult. The third — to take all that you’ve made of yourself and giving it to the world as the glorious gift of Living — is the most difficult of all. What this wonderful, fun, affectionate, awe-inspiring film shows is that making those difficult choices is truly the only chance worth taking, the only challenge worth accepting.

I realize that this review is a lot more about philosophy than it is about cinematography, acting, storytelling, and so on. It’s one of those films that bears being experienced more than described. However, before you think that the entire film is too highbrow for your tastes, I turn your attention to the wonderfully quirky bits that make the story so much fun. Lace (Sedgwick) makes furniture from grapevine that only George seems to want. Nate (Whitaker) is a ham-radio operator who is devoutly in love with Diana Ross and proclaims his love every night. Brent Spiner has a short cameo as a scientist trying to give George an IQ test and ending up being comically over-awed. And if nothing else, enjoy getting a good look of Duvall’s butt as he moons George for his birthday.

I rate this film a full five stars for all the best reasons. The acting is great, the cinematography and direction are first rate, and the film manages to be a fun, thought-provoking, love story in every sense — boyfriend-girlfriend love, caring for others love, love of learning and life. This is the story of ordinary folk who find something extraordinary in their midst — themselves.

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