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This turkey just doesn't fly

Not even the golden touch of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg can clear the lame script and static visuals for takeoff

By RICK GROEN
Friday, June 18, 2004 - Page R1

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The Terminal

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Sacha Gervasi

and Jeff Nathanson

Starring Tom Hanks, Catherine

Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci

Classification: PG

Rating: *½

Oh, it's terminal all right. In fact, the pallid thing is pretty much D.O.A., one of those misbegotten movies infectious enough to do serious damage to all involved. Under normal circumstances, the kind deed would be to issue a health warning and impose a strict quarantine -- after all, careers have been killed by lesser turkeys than this. Luckily, the principals here aren't normal and neither are their careers. Surely, by now, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks have the status of Tinseltown gods, inoculated against failure and impervious to any permanent damage from serious missteps. At least, let's hope so -- their divine status is about to be put to a serious test.

Maybe, once upon a time in the mansions of privilege, it all seemed like a good idea. With the premise based loosely -- very loosely -- on a true story, the script revolves around a poor schnook who has lost his standing in the global village. Flying to New York from some Eastern European republic, Viktor Navorski lands in a bureaucratic no-man's land. Apparently, while he was in the air, a military coup robbed him of his country, prompting an airport official to give him the bad news in a language he can't understand: "You are a citizen of nowhere." Translation: Barred from a return flight, barred from even leaving the terminal, Viktor is tightly wrapped in the stickiest of tape -- that endless red variety.

If this seems unlikely, you ain't seen nothing yet -- wait till the merely unlikely graduates into the wildly implausible. Still, early on anyway, it's easy to figure why our two gods were drawn to the yarn. Hanks gets to play another castaway -- marooned on a fluorescent island this time, yet just as isolated among the streaming crowds. And he gets to affect another wacky accent -- in Catch Me If You Can, it was vaguely Bostonian; in The Ladykillers, theatrically Southern; here, it's vague again, pointed somewhere in the direction of guttural Russian. By my count, two more and he'll have earned his Meryl Streep Badge in faux linguistics. As for the vaunted director, the attraction is no less obvious: Spielberg has long had a soft spot for stranded aliens, especially innocent ones keen to go home.

Actually, in the first couple of scenes, the conceit holds out a flicker of promise. Hanks nicely captures the palpable dislocation of the stranger in a strange land, trapped behind a massive language barrier and tangled up in regulatory absurdities. Sure, the dilemma is Kafkaesque, but the tone assuredly is not. To the contrary, it's soon evident that Viktor's situation is meant to be the stuff of situation comedy. Yet sitcoms weren't designed to last two hours and eight minutes, particularly when the net result is a few shaky laughs and one unwavering sensation -- that The Terminal is interminable.

What goes wrong? What doesn't, but let's start with the attempt to use the airport, its passengers and personnel as an American microcosm -- transient population, ethnically diverse, lots of shopping, even more internal security. Nice idea, but the writers prove either too timid or too dim to score any thematic points off it. Instead, they make do with broad farce and silly contrivance. The slapstick comes first: Viktor contorts himself to make a bed out of airport plastic, Viktor pratfalls on a newly washed floor, Viktor walks headlong into a plate-glass window. Happily, getting knocked about does wonders for his grasp of English, which undergoes a miraculous improvement overnight, enough to allow for a running series of cheap jokes at the expense of his mangled pronunciations.

So "He cheats" emerges as "Eat shit"; "a man of mystery" warps into "a man of misery"; and "Cher's panties" gets interpreted as "share panties" (yep, that scraping you hear is the sound of a script at the barrel's bottom).

Emboldened by such lambent wit, the flick then opens up its barrage of contrived plot twists. Our rustic alien proves to be quite the clever man of means -- he finds an unlikely job working on an airport construction crew, he becomes the unlikely saviour of a fellow foreigner in distress, he fights an unlikely battle of nerves with the nominal villain of the piece (Stanley Tucci, looking as bored with the mounting inanities as we are). Of course, this being a wannabe comedy, love is also in the stale terminal air. When not winning over the entire airport staff, Viktor finds time to broker one romance and then embark on another of his own -- with no less a looker than Catherine Zeta-Jones. In this little piece of America, it seems, gorgeous flight attendants are privy to a secret denied the rest of us -- that a middle-aged, paunchy, penniless, stateless immigrant is a natural babe magnet.

Speaking of secrets, Viktor keeps his stashed in a Planters peanut tin. When, in what passes for a climax, its contents are revealed, his mystery is solved but our misery continues. And Spielberg does nothing to alleviate it. In the past, even when the substance was off, his style didn't desert him -- he's typically a fluid wizard with the camera. But not here. His shots are as static as Viktor's predicament.

Can't say if he finally escapes, but I can tell you that we never do. To watch The Terminal is to be in one -- your plane delayed, your future on hold, your pass in hand and nothing to board.

But the ultimate cruelty is yet to come. Some day, in some unfriendly sky, this will be your in-flight movie.







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