Catherine Zeta-Jones and Tom Hanks in "The Terminal." (DreamWorks)

Our rating:
(PG-13: brief language, drug references)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci.
Director: Steven Spielberg.
Running time: 2 hr. 8 min.
Playing: Wide release.
In a nutshell: We've had 18-hour layovers at O'Hare that were more fun than this movie.
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Just hope 'The Terminal' isn't your in-flight movie

By Glenn Whipp
Film Critic

Steven Spielberg wants to make you smile with his new movie "The Terminal," which should be all the warning you need to avoid this troubled film in the same way you might avoid the airport on Thanksgiving weekend.

Remember "Hook"? Spielberg trying to make you smile is a painful, forced experience. By the end of this interminable movie, the corners of your mouth will feel like they've been yanked upward with sharp metal hooks for the better part of two hours.

Spielberg may be one of the greatest directors in film history, but with the notable exception of "E.T.," whimsy has never been his forte. With "The Terminal," he's aiming to deliver a Frank Capra-style fable full of uplifting sentiment about the human spirit, but the finished product is a beautifully lit mishmash of broad comedy, bad romance and emotional goo that only occasionally tugs your heart in the way that's intended.

The presence of Tom Hanks in the lead role of an Eastern European immigrant stranded in a New York city airport is a mixed bag, too, good because of the forceful conviction he brings to the role but bad in that it brings to mind past Hanks ventures in a similar vein. That feeling of deja vu certainly doesn't help the story (credited to Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson, Spielberg's collaborator on "Catch Me If You Can") overcome its saccharine third act, a plodding stretch that cries out for a three-dimensional character like "Cast Away's" Wilson the volleyball to save the day.

Hanks plays Viktor, who, upon landing at Kennedy Airport, is immediately placed in limbo because his native country, Krakozhia, has undergone a coup. A Napoleonic airport official (Stanley Tucci) confiscates Viktor's visa and sends him off to the transit lounge, where Viktor is supposed to wait - with his luggage and a handful of food vouchers - until the war is over.

Stranded, this Gump-like castaway has a series of adventures, becoming a matchmaker, a crisis counselor, a master craftsman and a designer-suit-wearing sweetheart to an emotionally vulnerable airline stewardess (a poorly cast Catherine Zeta-Jones). Not bad for a guy who understood only a handful of English words when he walked off the plane.

Given the talent involved, the film's humor is surprisingly sophomoric. There's a running gag about people slipping on freshly mopped floors that Spielberg beats to death, and lots of confusion over Viktor's heavy accent, provided that it's convenient for the plot. (You know the gag: He says "cheat," but it sounds like the profane synonym for poo-poo. The conversation goes back and forth. "(Bleep)?" "Cheat." "(Bleep)?" "Cheat!" Abbott and Costello it ain't.)

Of course, when he needs to, Viktor can be a silver-tongued angel, an innocent in a strange land (he tries to "phooone hooome," to no avail), carrying a mysterious can of Planter's nuts. The contents of said can won't surprise anyone who has paid attention to Spielberg's career, but the execution of the movie certainly will. Tear up your boarding passes for this one.

Glenn Whipp, (818) 713-3672