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A sentimental journey, delayed at the gate
Finding that good people exist, even in JFK
By John Muller
3 out of 5 stars
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Stanley Tucci
In the opening scene of Jacques Tati's 1967 film "Play Time," a custodian meanders through an austerely modern, fluorescent airport corridor wielding a quaint broom and dustpan. The wing is busy enough - military personnel march dutifully across the white tile floor; nurses bustle past, only to disappear behind a mysterious Skinnerian maze of temporary walls; a gaggle of gossipy American women are herded toward the exit by their guides - but no one seems interested in staying still long enough to deposit any sort of refuse. The custodian surveys his barren detail with a befuddled shrug; what could he possibly be expected to do here?
If he is still wondering (and watching Tati's movie, you get the feeling that he may well be), "The Terminal," Steven Spielberg's new airport drama, has an answer for him.
Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), an unwitting refugee of the turbulent fictional nation of Krakozhia, is sentenced by JFK Airport authorities to an indeterminate residence in the International Transit Lounge. Navorski's grasp of English is tailored to - and about on par with - the conversational abilities of New York cabbies, so he is escorted to his temporary home by the head of security, Ray Thurman (Barry Shabaka Henley). Summoning all of his linguistic prowess, Navorski manages one question: What is he supposed to do? "There's only one thing you can do here," Thurman replies. "Shop."
The response might seem satirical, except that it appears to be one of the movie's guiding principles. "The Terminal" contains more store-, brand- and product placement than any film in memory, even in the age of in-theater Sprite commercials and two-hour Pontiac ads disguised as USA movies. We soulless American capitalists ought to learn a thing or two about brotherhood and compassion from this golden-hearted Eastern European - but don't forget to stop by Starbucks on your way home.
Spielberg, of course, isn't nearly as interested in the political or existential (the tagline seems like a nod to Beckett) possibilities of the story as he is in full-throated human drama, and so we are introduced to the villainous corporate rule-abider (Stanley Tucci), the troubled romantic interest (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and the requisite multi-ethnic trio of loyal well-wishers. (Of the three, Kumar Pallana fares best as an off-kilter custodian, in a welcome transition to the mainstream after stealing scenes in each of Wes Anderson's first three films.)
Hard work and a heroic urban legend earn Navorski a place in the hearts of the smiling, colorfully uniformed airport shop employees, and by golly, if he just does a little bit more illegal construction labor, he can earn that Double Whopper all by himself. But at night, Navorski cradles a Planters Peanuts jar that contains his secret motivation for coming to New York in the first place, and the reason he wants to leave the Transit Lounge for the less appealing Ramada Inn.
As Frank Dixon, the official in charge of the airport's daily affairs, Tucci is the embodiment of the Man - or maybe the Man's protégé, shrewd, calculating and constantly aspiring to a higher appointment; second assistant vice president of regional operations, perhaps. Why he considers Navorski - whose worst visible offenses are accidentally breaking a girl's unattractive (and wholly impractical, considering the usual handling of air cargo) suitcase and building a modest home for himself in an abandoned wing of the terminal - to be a problem is never directly addressed. Maybe Dixon should be worrying about more pressing issues, like the inevitable consequences when store managers abandon their posts to parade down the escalator behind their egalitarian hero.
Hanks is good, maybe too good: Navorski's heartbreaking realization that his country is being torn apart is so much more powerful than anything else in the film that it threatens to bring down the otherwise cheerful mood. But he also reminds us that he is the most eminently watchable leading man in Hollywood, playing for laughs, charm and even discovering his inner Buster Keaton in a streak of well-played physical comedy.
Zeta-Jones brings an old-school grace to her role as an amorous flight attendant ("They're always ready for sex; that's why they're always smiling."). Accommodatingly, the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski bathes her in soft focus and golden sunlight, which sometimes replaces cold flourescents in mid-scene to punctuate a sentimental moment, as when Navorski's friends devise an improbably successful plan to land her quite literally in his lap.
But this is a Spielberg film, after all, and sentimentality is to be expected. After straying into uneasy territory with 2001's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" and hitting an impressive stride in 2002 with "Minority Report" and "Catch Me If You Can," Spielberg appears ready to return to warmer, simpler stories. And that's not entirely a bad thing.
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