Whether you choose to call it a light drama or a heavy comedy, "The Terminal" is an enjoyable urban fairy tale. But mostly, it's a chance to watch Tom Hanks do what he does best: wrap audiences up in his portrayal of a gentle and humble outsider as he tries to keep his dignity in an unsympathetic world.
Like Forrest Gump or marooned FedEx supervisor Chuck Noland, Hanks' character of Viktor Navorski in "The Terminal" is at a disadvantage. He arrives at John F. Kennedy International Airport from the made-up-for-the-movie Eastern European republic of Krakozhia, only to find that a military coup has taken place in his homeland while he was in the air, and the U.S. no longer officially recognizes his government. His passport's invalid, so he can't legally enter the country; the State Department has closed all travel to Krakozhia, so he can't go home. Until the diplomatic situation is resolved, the bureaucratic Homeland Security official (Stanley Tucci) tells him, "America is closed."
So with a pat on the back, a handful of airport meal vouchers, a 15-minute calling card and a pager, Tucci sends him off to wait in the terminal until somebody fixes the problem (not him, apparently). But Hanks defies the profile of Tucci's typical illegal alien by not bolting for the exits. He's determined to stay honest and law-abiding, even if it means sleeping in abandoned waiting areas and eating ketchup-and-saltine-cracker sandwiches after his meal vouchers end up in the garbage.
It's this premise of the movie, the idea of someone having to survive in an airport terminal with no money and no means of outside help, that's the most engaging reason to see the film. Hanks' character is ingenious in his efforts to make the best of his temporary home.
His background as a comedian serves him well, especially in his early scenes when everyone but Tucci understands that he doesn't speak English, and their conversation nearly turns into an Abbott and Costello routine. But director Steven Spielberg clumsily tries to inject more comic moments with people slipping on wet floors, smacking into plate glass windows and entering the wrong restrooms. The script, and the colorful group of airport employees who interact with Hanks on a daily basis, provide enough laughs on their own without the dose of slapstick.
Catherine Zeta-Jones figures prominently as a flight attendant whose love life parallels Hanks' day-to-day existence: always waiting for something. Though she and Hanks come to be friends, she doesn't understand his plight because of her self-proclaimed fault of only seeing what she wants to see in men. Yes, she's gorgeous, and she provides enough romantic interest to make "The Terminal" a good date movie, but her modern and neurotic character seems to be mostly a contrivance to throw more light on Hanks and his simple, honest ways.
There are a million reasons to call this movie a "fairy tale" - no one could ever end up in Hanks' situation in real life. Is he the lone Krakozhian citizen in the U.S.? Are there really no interpreters available in New York City? He says he's not married - does he not have a single friend or coworker back home he could call? (And why isn't such a sweet, upright guy married, anyway?) The foreman of a remodeling crew in the airport gives him a job - and pays him $19 an hour in cash under the table? Yeah, right.
Still, despite the plot holes and the unnecessary yuks, "The Terminal" satisfies as an entertaining character study - and leaves viewers thankful they're free to exit the theater after the credits roll.
Rated PG-13 for brief language and drug references
Starring: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Barry Shabaka Henley, Zoe Saldana, Eddie Jones
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Length: Two hours eight minutes
Now playing at: Astoria Gateway Cinemas
Short take: Tom Hanks is wonderful as Viktor Navorski, a law-abiding foreigner who gets caught in a diplomatic snafu and is stranded indefinitely at JFK. The comedy gets a little clunky, and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a flight attendant is more metaphor than character, but overall it's a sweet and pleasant film.
Rating: Two and a half stars (out of four)
Movie trivia: What's the background of Kumar Pallana, who plays the cantankerous Indian janitor, Gupta?
Answer: The 85-year-old Pallana performed juggling, magic and feats of balance as "Kumar of India" in vaudeville, nightclubs and TV variety shows such as "The Ed Sullivan Show."