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‘The Terminal’ gets stuck in sap
Tom Hanks stars as an Eastern European man stuck at an airport
Merrick Morton / Dreamworks Pictures via AP
Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) must make the best of his accommodations when a coup in his homeland leaves him stranded at the airport in New York in "The Terminal."
By John Hartl
Film critic
Updated: 4:32 p.m. ET June 16, 2004

Steven Spielberg has kept his sappy side in check for several years now. His last two pictures were refreshingly un-Spielbergian: the sleekly futuristic “Minority Report” and the effervescent “Catch Me If You Can.”

But the sap flows freely again in “The Terminal,” the story of an Eastern European immigrant, Viktor Navorski, who gets stuck in New York’s JFK airport just at that moment when a military coup takes place in his homeland. Suddenly stranded, a man without a country, he can’t go home and he can’t leave the terminal, so he learns to live at the airport. For the better part of a year.

Quick facts

Starring: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chi McBride, Stanley Tucci, Diego Luna
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13

It’s a fascinating situation, and the early scenes promise a great deal as the hapless Viktor (Tom Hanks) discovers his nemesis in an ambitious airport security supervisor (Stanley Tucci) who seems to take pleasure in thwarting him. Their cat-and-mouse games keep the picture moving in the right direction, though it gradually gets dragged down by a series of contrived subplots that mostly waste the actors who get stranded in them.

Among the casualties are Catherine Zeta-Jones, stuck in a one-note part as a 39-year-old flight attendant who can’t end her disastrous relationship with a married man, and Diego Luna (from “Y Tu Mama Tambien”) as an airport employee who provides the roly-poly Viktor with “Super-Size Me” quantities of fast food in order to get closer to a customs officer he wants to marry.

These characters are so simple, so uncomplicated and familiar, that almost anyone could have played them, though it’s a treat to see Zeta-Jones and Luna in almost anything. She almost makes her character’s instant attraction to Viktor credible, while Luna brings an infectious, puppyish charm to his character’s obsession.

Hanks is, as always, a treat, though he has an uphill battle making sense of Viktor, who seems not to understand a word of English in the early scenes; he miraculously becomes almost fluent after only a few days. As written, Viktor comes across as the reincarnation of Forrest Gump in one scene, and a quiet genius in the next. But no matter how contradictory the character becomes, Hanks makes his behavior seem plausible.

The biggest weakness here is Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay, which becomes increasingly preposterous as it stretches the story beyond what would appear to be its natural limits. As “The Terminal” pushes past the two-hour mark, and the writers set up a series of fairy-tale endings, it loses whatever grip it had on the truth of Viktor’s predicament. There’s only so much Spielberg (and John Williams’ spry score) can do to smooth over the dishonest touches.

The movie is loosely based on the experiences of Merhan Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian exile who was stuck for years at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris. It’s probably true that his story wouldn’t have been as commercial as the one Spielberg and his writers have chosen to tell, but did the rewrite have to be this shameless?

 © 2004 MSNBC Interactive

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