In “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.,” Steven Spielberg rolled out the red carpet for extraterrestrial visitors with unmatched gusto and sincerity. A similar cordial impulse may help to explain the doting drawbacks that weigh heavily upon “The Terminal,” Mr. Spielberg’s latest feature.
Another collaboration with Tom Hanks, the movie casts its leading man as an initially bewildered and ultimately angelic East European outcast named Viktor Navorski, stranded at New York’s Kennedy Airport when his apocryphal country, Krakozhia, is engulfed by a civil war.
The designated nemesis, U.S. Customs official Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), is permitted to mismanage the question of Viktor’s status so generously that a pretext that might be compressed into a matter of hours or days is extended to the metaphorically laborious length of nine months. (People who read newspapers may notice that the Viktor impasse could be resolved promptly if someone called a reporter specializing in Big Apple human interest.)
The contrivers of “The Terminal” allow themselves so much latitude while discovering and then venerating Viktor that they sour the setup, reducing his initial stateless dilemma to a melodramatic trifle and his humbling goodness to borderline insufferability. Mr. Hanks’ minimal-to-broken English remains a disarming stunt until it becomes apparent that Viktor is some kind of paragon — not only a master of every building trade but also an artist in mosaic tile. While speed-teaching himself English from duplicate Fodor guides, one presumably in Krakozhian, Viktor sets a pace that makes Dixon’s inability to secure a translator superfluous.
As a matter of fact, Viktor himself is recruited as a translator during a tense encounter with another misunderstood Slav. He also has time to play Cyrano for two of his new friends among the airport work force: shy food service driver Enrique (Diego Luna) and pert Customs officer Dolores (Zoe Saldana). Thanks to Viktor, they get ecstatically engaged without ever saying a word to each other. A triumph for Old Country traditions or merely ludicrous subplotting?
The role encourages Mr. Hanks to be gingerly Chaplinesque, especially while manipulating baggage carts or pretending to build and repair things. Viktor is cocooned in a fondly unwary “populist” ambience that suggests updated Frank Capra. A veritable rainbow coalition of supporting characters rallies to his cause, which defies contradiction. Even the filmmakers seem embarrassed about ganging up on Dixon expediently every half hour or so.
Despite the Chaplin and Capra hints, Viktor may still owe far too much to Dudley, the Mr. Fixit angel played by Cary Grant in “The Bishop’s Wife.” The filmmakers seem a little uncertain about Viktor’s eligibility as a lover. They set up a prospective match with Catherine Zeta-Jones as a wistfully airheaded flight attendant named Amelia, possibly the dumbest gal in the history of cinematic airline fiction. Then they have recurrent second thoughts about her suitability and end up in a near-vindictive state of confusion. It’s safer to think of Viktor as a divinity who must transcend nationality and romantic longing.
A replica of the John F. Kennedy International Airport terminal, constructed in Palmdale, Calif., under the supervision of production designer Alex McDowell, is a scenic marvel and will probably become the movie’s claim to fame. You hope it’s still standing. It might be more fun to tour the set. After all, “Waterworld” improved enormously when transformed into a live sideshow on the Universal backlot.
TITLE: “The Terminal”
RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting profanity and comic vulgarity)
CREDITS: Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson, based on a story by Andrew Niccol and Mr. Gervasi. Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski. Production design by Alex McDowell. Music by John Williams.
RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS