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Dustin Putman

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The Terminal (2004)
1 Stars

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Kumar Pallana, Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Chi McBride, Jude Ciccolella, Guillermo Diaz, Barry Shabaka Henley, Corey Reynolds
2004 – 128 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for brief language and drug references).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 11, 2004.

A motion picture that starts off with a quirkily original premise before completely derailing in shallow subplots that go nowhere and a loathsome conclusion that wants, but fails, to be uplifting, "The Terminal" might possibly be director Steven Spielberg's (2002's "Catch Me If You Can") weakest film to date. In its plot of a man who finds himself stranded for an inordinately long time with dwindling hope of being able to escape, and in many of its smaller details, "The Terminal" unintentionally recalls 2000's powerful "Cast Away," also starring Tom Hanks. In place of an island, however, is an airport terminal, and in place of that aforementioned masterpiece's humanism and profundity is little more than cutesy storytelling and off-putting, one-dimensional characters.

At nearly the exact moment Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) first arrives in New York City, a war breaks out in his Eastern European homeland, veritably shattering his own country's existence. Suddenly without a home to call his home or an acceptable visa, Viktor—who speaks little English—is instructed by head of homeland security Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) to remain within the walls of the airport terminal until either the federal government grants the proper clearance or his country reclaims its name. Viktor, a resilient, good-natured man, obliges, at first teaching himself English and finding ways to make money to eat. He befriends some of the lowly staff, including jokey janitor Gupta (Kumar Pallana), straight-talking security officer Mulroy (Chi McBride), and lovestruck kitchen worker Cruz (Diego Luna) who has his eyes on sweet INS agent Torres (Zoe Saldana). As weeks stuck in the airport turn to months, Viktor gets to know beautiful flight attendant Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a workaholic unhappily having an affair with a married man. Gradually, they form a romantic connection. Meanwhile, Viktor becomes determined to reach the outside world of Manhattan to fulfill a secret goal that, in time, will be revealed.

The lackluster screenplay by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson (2001's "Rush Hour 2") is only one of many glaring deficiencies that plague "The Terminal," but it is the most calamitous. The ragtag stream of interwoven storylines are either seriously undernourished, unnecessarily long-winded, utterly pointless, or all of the above. For example, the way in which the potential romance between Cruz and Torres is initially set up, with Viktor put in the role of go-between matchmaker in exchange for food, is pleasing enough, but its payoff is alarmingly irrational and not to be believed for a second. As for the sort-of love story between Viktor and Amelia, it holds all of the emotional weight of a paper bag and its despicable, cheap outcome is the equivalent of driving freely down a road and smashing into a brick wall. If there was supposed to be any point to the Viktor-Amelia scenes, and any internal growth for either party based on their relationship, it must have been lost in the translation from page to screen.

Save for the memorable Viktor Navorski, who is in almost every scene and played deliciously and with astounding adeptness and soul by Tom Hanks, all of the characters fall into one of two camps: they are written and portrayed as either dim-witted clowns, too cute by a half as they strain for throwaway laughs, or as unlikable, one-note caricatures who make baselessly bad decisions. So lacking in depth and consistency are these people that they give America, for which they are intended to stand for, a very bad name, indeed. If I were Viktor Navorski, had never stepped foot on United States soil, and was faced with these fools, I would see it as a blessing if I never got to see the outside world of New York City. This very fact is ruinous to the climax, turning what should have been lovely and poignant and emotionally resounding into a series of flat, uninteresting, meaningless scenes.

As the confused Amelia Warren, who is torn between a man she knows she probably shouldn't be with and a man she knows she probably can't ever be with, Catherine Zeta-Jones (2003's "Intolerable Cruelty") is stunningly bad in an admittedly thankless role. She is stiff, she has trouble emoting, and she never makes it plausible why she finds Viktor so attractive. The audience knows the answer to this question, yes, but Zeta-Jones is unconvincing in making the viewer believe it. The unsatisfactory way in which her character is dealt with in the third act would seem like a betrayal if she had been likable or charming to begin with, but she never was.

"The Terminal" is a big-screen bust, and in a big way. After all, it is not often that director Steven Spielberg is responsible for such a mess of a film. What is certain, at least, is that comedy is not his forte. For much of the running time, it almost seemed as if the falsely sentimental Garry Marshall (2004's "Raising Helen") was at the helm, rather than Spielberg. The dramatic moments want to be touching, but are only mawkish, while the comedic bits are more banal than clever, the only funny moments coming solely from Hanks' sterling comic talents. Even the cinematography by Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski (2002's "Minority Report") is genuinely dreary to look out, with the color scheme prevelant in boring pale blues and grays and the film itself jarringly overexposed. At some points, the glares from the light sources even threaten to drown out the characters. It is a real shame that such a fine performance from Tom Hanks is at the service of an otherwise unrewarding cinematic experience. At least the title is fitting. With every minute that ticks by, "The Terminal"—a hate letter to America for no valid reason—moves all the closer to its own ultimate fatality. By the end, the film is as good as pronounced dead.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman