'Terminal' becomes a phony layover

Friday, November 26, 2004

It's funny how Tom Hanks' latest effort, "The Polar Express," is mainly about traveling, whereas "The Terminal" involves the inability to go anywhere.

In Steven Spielberg's new-to-DVD drama (DreamWorks, $29.99) Hanks portrays Viktor Navorski, a citizen of a small Eastern European nation whose government is toppled by a coup while he is in midair. Intent on seeing New York, Viktor is placed in bureaucratic limbo after his visa is canceled and his passport confiscated. A by-the-book immigration official (Stanley Tucci) explains that he's become a "citizen of nowhere" and that "America is closed."

Forced to live in the mall-like international arrivals area of the airport, Viktor spends months making the vast terminal into his home away from home.

Audiences also will learn what it feels like to be trapped in "The Terminal."

Spielberg starts off well, with a first act that effectively captures how disorienting a situation this would be for a man struggling with a language barrier and unable to comprehend what is transpiring. Hanks effortlessly embodies the character portraying him as not just a good-hearted innocent but also a take-charge, savvy guy.

But the intriguing premise (based on an Iranian refugee's experience at France's Charles de Gaulle Airport) soon becomes a labored and contrived layover for the viewer.


DreamWorks Studios Photo

Tom Hanks portrays Viktor Navorski in "The Terminal." The drama, directed by Steven Spielberg, is now on DVD.

The film begins to introduce one ridiculous supporting character after another -- a crazy Indian janitor (Kumar Pallana), a beautiful flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a lovestruck food-service employee (Diego Luna) -- until it feels like a marathon viewing of the first few episodes of a sitcom. This is a world where secondary characters exist only to bolster the protagonist; they apparently have no lives beyond their day job.

The level of phoniness is best represented during a scene in which Hanks has finally been allowed to complete his pilgrimage to a New York hotel where a jazz legend has been relegated to a house gig at the bar for several years. Hanks approaches the man who -- for dramatic reasons -- is too busy to talk to his admirer because he's doing a sound check.

A sound check? For an old guy who's been playing the same room for months on end?

He may be too occupied to talk because he's slamming his fifth bourbon en route to another hellish night stuck in this Promethean gig, but he ain't doing a sound check.

Spielberg isn't interested in the real world, however. He only wants to dwell on the contrived, whether it's an impromptu wedding between employees who've never even had a date to a moment in which EVERYONE in the airport stops what they're doing and scrambles to get a better view of a janitor running.

A story about a magical train that shuttles kids to meet Santa at the North Pole is easier to swallow.

DVD extras on the three-disc set include a CD soundtrack, a featurette on building the terminal in an old airplane hangar and a conversation with Spielberg, Hanks and Zeta-Jones in which they discuss their positive and negative experiences in airports.