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THE TERMINAL *

CAST: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Barry Shabaka-Henley, Gupta Rajan, Zoe Saldana, Eddie Jones, Jude Ciccolella, Corey Reynolds, Gillermo Diaz, Rini Bell, Stephen Mendel, Valera Nikolaev, Michael Nouri, Benny Golson

DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg

SCREENWRITERS: Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson

Viktor Navorski, the sweet, polite, childlike Eastern European played by Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s new movie, has come to New York on a very special personal mission. That mission, however, may never be accomplished.

Why not? Because some time between Viktor’s take-off from his home turf and his arrival at New York’s JFK International Airport, a bloody coup has erupted and his country is no longer considered a bona fide country.

As a result, he is informed by a security chief at JFK that his passport is invalid and he will not be permitted to walk through the terminal doors and into the streets of his vividly longed-for New York. Since Viktor knows only a few words in English, he misses a few of the essentials of this ice-cold secureaucrat’s message, including the bit about the war that is currently tearing his homeland apart. Nevertheless, he is nervously aware that things are not going as planned.

Shaken but still polite, he clutches his suitcase and the food vouchers he’s been handed by the security stiff and walks in a daze amid crass, pushy, self-absorbed Americans. It’s at this point that he receives a truly major jolt. Looking up at a row of huge TV screens, he sees images of his native land--dark, swirling scenes of violence and bloodshed. The sight nearly unhinges him. In a panic, he pounds on one of the screens and shrieks at the incomprehensible news announcer. Babbling in a Russian-ish language, he pleads with people rushing by to tell him what the TV voices are saying, to explain to him what on earth is happening in his beloved country. To these mean-faced travelers, however, Viktor seems just another crazed, possibly dangerous foreigner—someone best avoided. In this crowd, in this country he thought he would love, he finds himself totally, frighteningly alone.

The extraordinary mixture of anguish and grief and terror conveyed by Tom Hanks in this sequence is so powerful that we feel certain we’re about to be drawn into an overwhelming experience, a piercing indictment of contemporary society, that nightmare world where there is little tenderness, mercy or compassion.

But "The Terminal" turns out be a nightmare of an altogether different kind. Director Spielberg, who served Hanks so well in "Saving Private Ryan" and "Catch Me If You Can," shortchanges his star with a wobbly vehicle (provided by screenwriters Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson) that quickly sinks to the lowest level of sitcom humor, trite optimism and knee-jerk patriotism. All the people who viewed Viktor with such disdain during his early days at JFK prove to be exceptionally generous members of the Big Melting Pot over the ensuing months (or is it years?) of his residency.

We’re talking here about the supposedly hilarious janitor from India who deliberately causes passengers to do pratfalls on slippery floors (he’s a mensch at heart, of course); the timid young Mexican food-worker who keeps Viktor chubby in return for his help in the wooing of a gorgeous customs agent; a jolly African-American airport employee who organizes after-hours poker games played not for money but for unclaimed baggage; and numerous other lovable goofs who assist Viktor in his efforts to build a snazzy secret apartment in the terminal (talk about security!); to bed a spicy flight attendant who has skidded into his life across a slippery floor (forget that Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones have about as much chemistry as Ben and J. Lo in "Gigli"); and, finally, to achieve his personal mission (it has something to do with that Planters peanuts can he cradles like a baby, but don’t expect me to reveal his cornball secret). As this band of Good Samaritans gathers around Viktor and cheers him on to Capraesque triumph, a lump may or may not swell up in your throat, causing you to gag if not wretch.

If there is a point to this interminable "Terminal," I missed it. For me, it’s simply a missed connection.

--GUY FLATLEY