Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Stanley Tucci. Rated PG.
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I recently had the rare pleasure of seeing a perfect 70mm print of Jacques Tati's Playtime, the 1967 magnum opus for which the French director famously spent millions rebuilding the Paris airport on his own soundstage. Tati's expensive perfectionism had a point: his own character, Monsieur Hulot--a tall, pipe-puffing middle-ager in too-short trousers and a beige raincoat--was forever out of sync with modern surroundings, and yet no building or institution was able to diminish his humanity.
I mention this in relation to The Terminal--also about a small man swimming against the tide of modernity--because Steven Spielberg seems disturbingly unsure of his own intentions, oblivious even to the darker implications of the word terminal. The film centres on Everyshlub Tom Hanks, here called Viktor Navorski, newly arrived at New York's JFK Airport on unspecified business and stopped by customs when a coup in his native (and fictitious) Krakozhia suddenly nullifies his passport.
The airport security chief, Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), tells him that "America is closed", in pointed reference to the climate of fear ruling his own country. But the statement turns out to be toothless, since Viktor's prison soon reveals itself to be a mini-America--that is, a melting pot's worth of immigrants and a paradise of consumer goods. Spielberg frequently shows Dixon's team--a few white men surrounded by darker minions--surveying their world from the other side of a giant red sign for a Borders bookstore. But what does that image mean, exactly, aside from product placement to go along with many long minutes lavished on Burger King and Hugo Boss suits?
Among the characters propped up to support the hero's Gumplike nobility are would-be lovers, played by Zoe Saldana and Diego Luna, and an elderly Indian janitor played by Kumar Pallana, all of whom scurry off-stage when not needed by the director or screenwriters Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson. The material manages to be condescending even as it lionizes its subjects, although the actors mostly bring out the best in their limited dialogue.
Nothing, however, can save the romantic liaison between our hero, whose made-up Slavic language quickly morphs into cutely serviceable English, and a gorgeous but klutzy flight attendant played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, who actually has to say lines like, "Stay away from me, Viktor. I'm bad news."
As he has shown in Catch Me if You Can and elsewhere, Spielberg's concepts of love and lust are basically those of a 12-year-old imitating not life but the movies' imitation of it. Add to this a dull score, very few laughs (most of them wet-floorbased), and some genuinely bad cinematography, and you have a joint career low for many of the talents involved. At least the film did not end with Viktor spreading his mother's ashes at the base of the Statue of Liberty, as I feared it would.
Much as I respect the director's humanistic message, the clumsiness and moral confusion with which it is delivered here just makes me want to rent DVDs of old French movies, if only to be reminded that, "Hey, those foreigners really do have something to say."