Originally created 06/18/04

At the Movies: 'The Terminal'



You think you've got it hard, trying to amuse yourself at an airport when your plane's delayed for three hours? Try spending nearly a year there, living on airport food, sleeping on chairs, hosing yourself down in the men's room.

That's the predicament of Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), an Eastern European stranded by circumstance at Kennedy airport in Steven Spielberg's comedy "The Terminal."

Monumentally staged, with a magnificent and authentic three-story terminal built by Spielberg's crew, the film unfortunately tends toward syrupy mush in its dramatic peaks and lines up an overly calculated parade of supporting players orbiting Viktor.

While those shortcomings never become distracting enough to make you scope out the theater's emergency exits, the characters and their interactions come off feeling as precisely constructed as the terminal itself.

The scenario of a man forced by bureaucracy to live in an airport is far-fetched enough, though it's loosely inspired by the real-life story of a man stuck for years at Paris' De Gaulle airport. His relationships with terminal regulars, while entertaining, are so triangulated that they stretch credibility further.

As always, earnest Everyman Hanks wears his character like a familiar, comfortable suit, elevating the tale above the schmaltz inherent in Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson's screenplay.

Those who fondly remember the manic Hanks of "Splash" will enjoy the comic flourishes he lends to Viktor, the actor's most slapstick role in years.

Viktor arrives at JFK from the fictional Eastern European country of Krakozhia, which has erupted in a bloody coup while he was traveling. His passport invalidated, Viktor is dumped into the airport's international lounge and told he must stay there until his status is sorted out, which drags into months as unrest in Krakozhia continues.

A cheery man, Viktor makes the most of his dilemma, using the airport's impersonal resources to build a little life and sense of community. He turns an unused arrival gate into living quarters, gets money for food by returning rented luggage carts, and learns English through a side-by-side comparison of a New York travel guide written in English and his own language.

Viktor finds romance with flight attendant Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who's stranded in her own way in a hopeless relationship with a married man. He makes friends with an assemblage of airport workers representing the American melting pot.

He shows his resilience by repeatedly foiling the little plots of airport bureaucrat Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) who conspires to make Viktor leave the airport illegally so he can be arrested and out of his hair.

Amelia's a thin role for Zeta-Jones, who does little beyond whining over the state of her love life. Tucci makes for a grand government toady, but the character is terribly inconsistent, a sagacious professional in one scene, a blundering boob the next. The filmmakers never quite settle on whether Dixon should be a likable foil or an all-out villain.

The rest of the players, though warm and amusing, feel less like their own characters than Viktor's personal support group.

The third collaboration between Hanks as actor and Spielberg as director, after "Saving Private Ryan" and "Catch Me If You Can," "The Terminal" is a rare stab at comedy for Spielberg.

His 1979 World War II extravaganza "1941" was as big as comedies come, but the laughs came fitfully. "Always," from 1989, was more a comic drama.

"The Terminal" certainly delivers more consistent humor than Spielberg's past lighter tales. But like "1941" and some of his action flicks, particularly the "Jurassic Park" movies, credibility on a human level runs second to the surroundings.

The setting should be the backdrop for an engaging story. In this case, the elaborate terminal takes top billing from Hanks and company.

"The Terminal," a DreamWorks release, is rated PG-13 for brief language and drug references. Running time: 128 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.