By Pete Vonder Haar | June 20, 2004

With “The Terminal,” Steven Spielberg gives us his second comedy in as many years (2002’s “Catch Me If You Can” marked his first real foray into the territory since the disastrous “1941”). For most of the last two and a half decades, Spielberg has busied himself with action-adventure (“Jurassic Park”), historical drama (“Schindler’s List,” “Amistad”), and Indiana Jones movies. It stands to reason, therefore, that one might feel a little apprehension when approaching a new Spielberg film that doesn’t fit into those parameters: are we going to get the happy-go-lucky caper hijinx of a “Catch Me?” Or will we be saddled with the sappy romantic stylings of an “Always?” The answer, as it pertains to “The Terminal,” is “yes.”

Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) is in a bit of a bind, immigration-wise. It seems that while he was en route to NYC there was a military coup in his Central European homeland of Krakozhia. Navorski soon discovers the United States doesn’t recognize the new government, rendering his passport invalid. Unable to return home and forbidden from entering the United States, Navorski is relegated to a transitory existence in the international terminal at JFK Airport.

Inspired by the story of Iranian refugee Merhan Nasseri, who has lived in Terminal One of Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport since 1988, “The Terminal” wants to be many things: the saga of an innocent abroad; a feel-good tale of the fish out of water who earns the respect and camaraderie of his fellow man; and a bittersweet love story. Spielberg has minor success with the first two, the third…not so much. It isn’t that Catherine Zeta-Jones’ character Amelia is too young for Navorski (Hanks is actually 12 years younger than her real life husband), there just isn’t any chemistry between the two. The romantic subplot sputters along weakly for half the film, then dies. This might damage the film, if we actually cared about the outcome of their relationship.

It being New York City (and a Spielberg movie), Navorski of course has to encounter a multicultural array of colorful supporting characters, “Moscow on the Hudson” style. There’s Chi McBride as the gruff African-American baggage handler with a heart of gold, Diego Luna as Enrique, the Latino food services employee with the hots for Zoe Saldana’s INS officer, and Kumar Pallana as Gupta, the Indian custodian who mops random areas of the terminal and then waits for passengers to wipe out on the wet floor. This “rainbow coalition of airport tradesmen” trope is worsened by gratuitously turning Navorski into a local hero. We already feel a certain amount of sympathy for his plight as it is. Why tack on the part where he helps the Russian trying to smuggle Canadian drugs back to his dying father (aside from allowing Spielberg a chance to get a dig in at the current Administration’s drug policy, that is)?

There also has to be a bad guy, and Dixon, Stanley Tucci’s officious prick of a Customs official, fits the bill nicely. Dixon places a few obstacles in the way of Navorski’s happiness – which the latter easily avoids – then ends up wringing his hands as the denizens of the terminal ultimately come together to thwart his schemes (“I’d have made it too, if not for those meddling Sbarro employees”).

Speaking of Sbarro, I have to tip the (authentic Nike Classic Tailwind) cap to Dreamworks on this one. “The Terminal” is a veritable cornucopia of product placement. Every scene is framed by a Starbuck’s, or Border’s, or Brookstone. Navorski uses quarters obtained from the luggage cart return to stuff his face at Burger King. Repeatedly. And with an almost sexual satisfaction. He also impresses Amelia with his Hugo Boss suit, conveniently carted around in a Hugo Boss bag, which he bought on special from the Hugo Boss store. It’s like watching a movie in the atrium of your local mall.

Hanks does his best, which might be attributable to the fact he’s essentially giving us the Adventures of Forrest Gump’s Smarter Balkan Brother. Navorski is, at first, a hopeless rube (Krakozhians have apparently never encountered prepaid phone cards or pagers, which is a little unbelievable even for someone from an ex-Soviet republic). He speaks almost no English when he arrives, yet the Customs officials insist on laying everything out for the audience by talking to him as if he does. He eventually learns the language and even gets a job in the airport, but the ending – following two full hours of padded plot development – comes and goes so fast you may find yourself wondering if you missed something. Of the cast, only Pallana makes an impression, and that for his passive sadism.

There are worse movies out there than “The Terminal,” but few that feel quite so…unnecessary.

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