Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Spielberg schmaltz

Hanks and Spielberg wallow in corny cupcake

Posted By on Wed, Jun 23, 2004 at 12:00 AM

Because it’s the new Spielberg/Hanks collaboration one approaches The Terminal with somewhat higher than usual expectations. And so, although it’s no better or worse than any other slightly above-average summer toss-off, it seems more disappointing than it otherwise might. Passable, clichéd entertainment isn’t the kind of thing one expects from Spielberg (at least not at this point in his career) and the whole enterprise has the empty feel of a talented director trying to pump some life into mediocre material.

The basic problem, as is so often the case, lies with the script. Loosely based on a true story, the premise seems promising: Victor Navorski (Tom Hanks) finds himself stranded in JFK airport when a military coup in his homeland (Krakozhia, a fictional Slavic country) leaves him without citizenship to claim; the United States will no longer recognize his country, his visa is revoked and he can neither be sent back home nor enter America. After some scenes demonstrating Navorski’s canny survival skills once he’s forced to live in the terminal, the story becomes increasingly improbable as our hero masters the English language, romances a stewardess (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and generally proves to be a somewhat saintly soul with an abundance of goodwill despite the utmost provocation.

The script, by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson, is lazy and hokey, and Spielberg’s pizzazz can only go so far toward making it palatable. If the film is decidedly Capra-esque in its depiction of one man struggling against a heartless bureaucracy it also leans toward that famous director’s more soggy machinations; the ones that gave rise to the phrase “Capra-corn.” The jokes tend to fall flat and the movie has a bad case of the cutes, most noticeably in its handling of a subplot involving Navorski as a go-between in the developing romance between an INS worker and a guy who works in the airport food service department. Corny reaction shots are used to emphasize Navorski’s evolution from suspicious eccentric wandering through the terminal to local hero admired by all the workers for the way he stands up to The Man. It slowly dawns on the viewer that we’re supposed to feel all warm and fuzzy as the decency and generosity of one’s fellow man and/or woman continually saves the day.

So, after all that, why three stars? Because Hanks and Stanley Tucci — who brings a sly intelligence to his role of the cardboard villain — are entertaining, because I’ve seen a lot worse and because I’m feeling generous.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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