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May 12, 2006 | Comments ()



An Engaging Delay

The Terminal / Dustin Rowles

Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()


Most of us have had a devastatingly horrible airport experience. One that we like to bring out every time the topic of airport delays and security mishaps comes up in conversation, swapping with our friends and colleagues excruciatingly detailed encounters with belligerent flyers, fast-food vouchers, and neck pains compliments of an overnight stay in an airport terminal. Many more veteran flyers can prattle on for hours about the countless delays they’ve experienced, and most, unfortunately, will do just that: Blather nonstop, putting their listeners in the same frame of mind as the unfortunate traveler stuck overnight in an airport with a terrible in-flight magazine, day-old foot odor, and a sun-lamped roast-beef sandwich with wilted lettuce and soggy bread.

I hate listening to those stories. I hold my breath a bit every time I ask someone how their flight was, bracing myself for the inevitable mind-numbing airport travelogue. By the time it’s over, I’m ready to cut the trip short, and send the passenger back into the jaws of Logan or JFK for the remainder of their stay just for making me endure their boorishness.

But, in Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal, Tom Hanks turns a year-long airport delay into a nearly cohesive, though implausible, story that leaves its passenger audience, if not delighted for the two-hour stopover, at least no worse for wear.

In the movie, Viktor Navorski (Hanks) arrives in New York from his Eastern European homeland with but a few English phrases, only to learn that he no longer has a country. Apparently, while sitting through the cross-Atlantic in-flight movie, his country fell into some sort of civil war; by the time he has landed, his country no longer has an identity, or at least not one recognized by United States. What follows is an unlikely premise that, under the direction of Spielberg, we are only all too willing to accept: Navorski is a man with no country. Not only is he not allowed to return home, he is not allowed to leave the airport. As airport supervisor, Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) says it, Navorski has fallen through the cracks and is no longer acceptable.

So, begins Hanks year-long delay, complete with remaking an abandoned terminal into his home, fending for Burger King with no money, finding a construction job, and ultimately befriending the entire airport staff (sans Frank Dixon, who develops into Navorski’s technocratic adversary).

Like the challenge Hanks faced in Cast Away, playing off the life of an island instead of other characters, Hanks once again succeeds, only this time the island is La Guardia; and while he has plenty to say, no one can make heads or tails of it. And instead of a Wilson Volleyball, Navorski carries around a Planters Peanuts can, product placement that contains the mystery to Hanks’ trip to the United States.

We are never certain why Navorski never sneaks out of the airport when no one is looking, and while not even the best actor can fill the gaping holes in the plotline, with Tom Hanks, you are all too willing to forgive and forget. To be sure, the Navorski character could easily have come off as a cliched, offensive, immigrant stereotype, but Hanks rises above the cheap language-mangling punch lines, and plays Navorski as a deliciously amiable, Eastern-European, classic Capra character, full of the soul and humanity only a Tom Hanks can provide.

Hanks is surrounded by an agreeable, and well-liked supporting cast whose characters never quite break out of their stereotyped molds (Chi McBride as a Charles Duttonesque janitor and Y tu mamá tambien’s Diego Luna, playing another charming, if one-dimensional, airport employee). It is, however, hard not to love the Wes Anderson regular, Kumar Pallana, playing Gupta Rajan, the obliviously senile janitor who plays up the immigrant typecast to a delectable comedic affect.

The real weakness to the story, and to the movie as a whole, is the romantic subplot involving Catherine Zeta Jones. As flight attendant Amelia Warren, we are asked to look past her character flaws (she can’t get out of a relationship with an older, married sleaze and can’t quite give in to Navorski either) and give in to Ms. Douglas’s winsomely false smile. But underneath the perfect skin, the rows of oversized teeth, and the luscious red lipstick, the character is empty, unconvincing, and out of place among this cast. It was a role seemingly meant for Meg Ryan or Sandra Bullock, who couldn’t have sold the character any better, but who, at the very least, might have been more likable. Zeta Jones plays stuck up bitch better than anyone, but as the romantic-comedy typecast, she has all the believability of a flight attendant coldly reassuring passengers that everything is going to be all right as a plane hurtles toward the ground. Fortunately, the romantic subplot is just that: a minor story that doesn’t distract us too much from the main focus of the film. So, it is not a disappointment when Warren is cast aside in the third act, in favor of the real love story at hand: Navorski’s (and presumably Spielberg’s) love for the city of New York.

The film has all the hallmarks of a Spielberg film, and in lesser hands than Hanks, it probably would’ve fallen as flat as A.I. or Hook. It is a truly skilled actor that can make an audience overlook the sentimentality inherent in a Spielberg film, who bathes the characters in airport neon, beating us over the head with soft, lush lighting, overly dramatic close-ups, and a swelling score that forces tears out of even the least susceptible. But Hanks’ character turns the paint-by-numbers plot, stock characters, and sappy love story into a heart-warming, movie-magic, near-miss of a classic … or, at the very least, an airport story I loved sitting through.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.



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