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Whimsical 'Terminal' buoyed by strong cast

"The Terminal" makes it official: Tom Hanks is the Jimmy Stewart of his generation.

It's impossible not to see that connection in Steven Spielberg's warm and sentimental throwback to the movies of yesteryear. "The Terminal" may take place in modern times, but its heart is beating to a tune Stewart would have certainly recognized.

Like many classics from the Golden Age, "The Terminal" is driven by characters -- and a great cast -- instead of plot. The story can be easily summed up -- a foreigner gets stuck living in an airport until he gets the opportunity to go back home -- but that wouldn't do justice to this whimsical fable. In a Seinfield-like twist, everything happens because nothing is happening.

Hanks plays Victor Navorski, a citizen of the fictional country of Krakozia, who arrives at New York's J.F.K. airport to find out that a civil war has errupted in his homeland while he was in flight.

Because his country no longer exists, Victor's passport is no good. Frank (Stanley Tucci), the director of the U.S. Board of Customs at the airport, tells Victor he can't leave the airport and he can't go home until he has a country to go home to. That leaves Victor indefinitely "delayed" and literally stuck in the prison of the airport terminal.

Unable to speak more than a few words of English, Victor figures out the tricks of surviving. Before long, he's playing matchmaker, sitting in on a late-night poker game and striking up a flirtation with a pretty stewardess.

Now, obviously, that premise stretches the bounds of credibility because as the film rolls on -- and the months in Victor's life drag on -- it's hard to believe Frank has anything to gain by not somehow sending Victor on his way. And Victor's evolution -- from an "unacceptable" displaced tourist to the airport's unofficial mascot -- is as far-fetched.

Yet there are times when you may be content to let a movie take you for a ride because it is so darn likeable -- and "The Terminal" is that movie. There is Spielberg, one on hand, who sees people through a dreamy lens -- as basically good with the ability to rise above hardship and inspire each other. He can pile on the sentiment thickly, and yet he knows when it is thick enough. And then there's Hanks, on the other, a master at walking the line between pathos and comedy. These two are a match made in Frank Capra heaven.

Add to their talents a cast of human oddballs that nicely comes together. The Indian entertainer Kumar Pallana is a cynical, sadistic janitor Gupta who enjoys watching distracted travellers slip on his wet floors. Diego Luna, an up-and-coming young Mexican actor, is a lovesick food service worker, while the object of his affection is a U.S. Customs agent played by the hard-working Zoe Saldana. Chi McBride is Victor's best friend, the baggage handler Mulroy. Catherine Zeta-Jones rounds out the cast, but if she seems oddly out of step that's because her character -- a flighty stewardess who likes to be treated badly by men -- is unexplainably out of step with the tone of the movie.

At more than two hours, "The Terminal" is too long and the final "big" revelation for Victor's trip to New York makes the ending go out with a pop instead of a bang. But if "The Terminal" becomes a footnote in the Spielberg-Hanks repertoire, it's finely made candy -- pleasantly sweet and easy to digest.

Released by DreamWorks Pictures, "The Terminal" is rated PG-13 for brief language and drug references. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes. It is playing at Fairmount Cinema 6, 3750 U.S. 27 North, Sebring; 385-9980.

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