A thoroughly enjoyable disappointment, “The Terminal” features Tom Hanks at his lovable best in a film that’s not fully worthy of his performance.
For most audiences, that’s going to be good enough, especially with Steven Spielberg directing. This is definitely Spielberg-lite, and that’s OK. That it’s also Spielberg-scattered is more troubling.
The premise is extremely simple. Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, citizen of some small Eastern European country that suffers a coup while he’s in the air on his way to visit New York City. By the time he reaches customs his country no longer exists, so his passport is no longer valid. He can’t enter the United States, but neither can he return home. All this is explained to Viktor, who knows virtually no English, by customs bureaucrat Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), who assures him it likely will be cleared up in a day or so and then says in the meantime he’ll have to stay in the airport terminal.
So off Viktor goes to live in an airport, not knowing the language, with no valid money and no real idea of what’s going on.
Obviously, things don’t get cleared up quickly and the film is at its best in the first hour as Viktor struggles to adapt and survive in the airport, hustling money through small jobs, making friends and learning English. Meanwhile, Viktor becomes an irritation that won’t go away for Dixon, incurring his wrath by simply existing. Eventually, Viktor starts flirting with beautiful flight attendant Amelia (Catherine Zeta Jones), a woman who consistently makes the wrong choices in life. At this point, the film starts to veer toward romantic comedy, although veering is about as far as it goes. To a large extent, Zeta-Jones seems to be in this film because all Hollywood movies need beautiful leading ladies.
Eventually, we find out what brought Viktor to New York in the first place, although that revelation comes late and with little set up. And yet, still Hanks sells it; we’re ready to overlook almost anything when this guy’s on screen.
But “The Terminal” asks for a lot of overlooking. There’s no easier target in modern times than the evil bureaucrat and you keep waiting for Dixon to take on more human dimension, but he never does. Spielberg tries to backtrack with him in the final minutes but by then it’s way too late. It also would have been nice to see Viktor do something even a bit less than saintly. Flawed heroes are all the more heroic, but Viktor, fun as he is, is just too perfect.
Thing is, though, audiences love loving Tom Hanks and Viktor is the most fully sympathetic character he’s played in years. The rhythms he uses in his early scenes stumbling through conversations are wonderful, the still-boyish beam he exudes when Viktor scores a small victory is undeniable and the common man bravery of his fight against the system is irresistible. Hanks may or may not be the greatest actor alive, but he’s certainly the most likable.
“The Terminal” is nowhere near as good as the two previous Hanks-Spielberg collaborations (“Saving Private Ryan” and “Catch Me If You Can”), but it may prove just as popular with audiences already weary of the summer bombast of effects movies, who just want to believe that regular, decent people can triumph in a world gone mad. This may not be a great movie, but it may prove a great feel-good balm to many. And who would deny them?
You can reach Tom Long at firstname.lastname@example.org. Join him for Reel Talk, a monthly movie preview and discussion, at the Star Southfield Theatre. To register, call (313) 222-1457 or (313) 222-1458, or go online at www.detnews.com/entertainment.