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Terminally Funny: Not perfect, but a pleasant Hanks film

The Grand Rapids Press

'The Terminal" may be the big feel-good movie for the summer, and feeling good is something we all need on occasion. There's nothing wrong with coming out of a film feeling wonderful about humanity. Unfortunately, the feeling only lasts until the next news item in which you see man's inhumanity to man.

Just the same, "The Terminal" is a positive thing that's well worth the viewing.

In this comedy, Tom Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a man visiting the United States from a fictional eastern European nation. He arrives at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York with all his proper credentials, but he finds while he was on the plane there was a coup back home.

Until things get straightened out, Viktor is told by airport and customs officials his passport is no good. One bureaucratic problem after another ensues, and he is prohibited from leaving the international-transit wing at the terminal. The oddest of refugees, Viktor must make a life for himself within the confines of an airport terminal.

Viktor's predicament is due partly to the obstructionism of Frank Dixon (played by Stanley Tucci), the chief airport bureaucrat, who sees Viktor's plight as a potential problem in his rather neat little world. Frank privately hopes Viktor simply escapes from the terminal and becomes someone else's problem.

Viktor, however, who speaks almost no English, does as he's told and stays put. Soon he becomes known to all who work at the terminal, and they all come to like him a lot.

While "Terminal" may be a feel-good movie, I don't think it is a real good feel-good movie. Despite being directed by Steven Spielberg, who generally is very careful with his films, there is a sloppiness about this film.

For instance, early in the story, Frank, the airport official, is trying to explain the situation to Viktor, and it seems the poor traveler is unable to comprehend a word Frank is saying. The writers and Spielberg manage to get a few laughs from that situation, which is fine. But then, when Viktor leaves Frank's office a bit later, he suddenly is able to understand fairly complex instructions, such as the fact he has to stay in the terminal and can use some food vouchers that are handed to him.

I suppose if one looks upon this film as a modern-life cautionary tale, most of its inconsistencies will be acceptable. And I suppose if you go to this film to see Hanks do his stuff, the experience will be more than acceptable. Certainly, it is a far better film than "The Ladykillers," which Hanks made recently for the Coen brothers.

Hanks does a credible job as the man without a country. He is supported by some wonderful players, too, including Diego Luna as an airport worker. Luna appeared in "Open Range" and "Y Tu Mama, Tambien" and is a very appealing young performer. Kumar Pallana plays Gupta, another airport worker who is surly and more than a little afraid of immigration authorities. He almost steals the show from Hanks -- but that's pretty much impossible. Still, Pallana is a lot of fun.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is on hand for a little romance, playing a stewardess repeatedly in and out of the airport. But the relationship with Viktor seems a bit forced, and we never get to know her very well. If I were going to cut some scenes from this film, and I believe it could use some trimming, I think I would take out most of the Zeta-Jones scenes and make her more of a minor character. I know, I know ... it's a stupid idea.

"The Terminal" dabbles a bit with the institution of Homeland Security, but for the most part, this seems like some kind of pre-9/11 airport. But, again, that doesn't matter if you keep reminding yourself you're looking at a fairy tale.

The payoff of "The Terminal" is interesting as we find out the nature of Viktor's original mission in the United States. I'm not sure it is presented as effectively as possible, considering the nature of fairy-tale endings.

Yes, Hanks is fun to watch in this film, and there are some very funny moments. A lot more, in fact, than in many of today's comedies. I just get the feeling Spielberg might have been thinking about other projects rather than giving this one his undivided attention.

© 2004 Grand Rapids Press. Used with permission

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