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Review: Too much down time in 'Terminal'

Hanks, Spielberg can't save weak premise

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

The Terminal
Stanley Tucci plays a security chief and Tom Hanks is a European tourist stranded at Kennedy Airport in "The Terminal."
Catherine Zeta-Jones
Steven Spielberg
Tom Hanks

(CNN) -- "The Terminal" should have been terminated from the get-go.

When you're teaming Steven Spielberg with Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones, expectations are justifiably high. But why these three Oscar-winning artists decided to lend their exceptional talents to a movie with such a thin wisp of a plot -- which goes absolutely nowhere -- is beyond me.

The first 45 minutes or so are interesting, as we learn about Hanks' character and his unusual situation. Then the whole thing takes a nose dive and never recovers.

Here's the fairly clever, but ultimately one-note premise: Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a man traveling to the United States from his fictitious homeland, the Eastern European country of Krakozhia.

Upon landing at New York's Kennedy Airport, he is told a military coup has taken place in Krakozhia. His visa is canceled and his passport is now invalid until diplomatic relations can be established between the U.S. and Krakozhia's new government. In effect, Navorski is now a man without a country.

Taking up residence

Stanley Tucci ("Road to Perdition") stars as Frank Dixon, an uptight mid-level bureaucrat in charge of airport security. At first, he's tolerant of Navorski's predicament: unable either to allow him to leave the airport or to deport him, Dixon gives Navorski free reign within the international transit lounge, and even gives him food vouchers, thinking that the situation will be cleared up within a few days.

But as the weeks and months drag on, it becomes apparent that Navorski's stay is indefinite, and Dixon begins to get nasty. People are suppose to ebb and flow in "his" airport, and here's some guy walking around in a bathrobe like he owns the place.

This part of the film is engaging as Navorski -- the ultimate "everyman" -- tries to take up residence in the transitory, almost dehumanizing, environment of a large international airport.

He sets up his own personal homeless shelter (in a part of the airport that is being remodeled) and makes money to buy food by returning used luggage carts at a quarter a pop. He also begins to learn English by using Fodor travel guide books, one in English and one in his native language.

In an effort to make Navorski illegally escape from the airport and into New York City -- where he'll be someone else's problem -- Dixon begins to wage war on the hapless traveler. The passive-aggressive relationship between the two men is funny and contains a lot of dramatic tension.

Painful adjustment

The Terminal
Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a flight attendant who strikes up a relationship with Hanks' character.

Up to this point Hank's performance is reminiscent of a cross between his characters in "Cast Away" and "Big." He's lost and bewildered, but determined to make the best of a bad situation. But then things go sour.

Navorski begins to make friends at JFK with a bunch of one-dimensional, multi-ethnic stereotypes from the airport's food courts, shops and so forth. His biggest connection is with a flight attendant, Amelia Warren, played by a woefully miscast Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Once the story stops focusing on Navorski's adjustments to living in an airport and his cat-and-mouse game with the relentless Dixon, things go south quickly. There is just no "there" in the relationship between the sympathetic refugee and the beautiful but romantically challenged flight attendant

To add insult to injury, another romantic subplot -- between a food service worker (Diego Luna) and a beautiful immigration officer (Zoe Saldana) -- is downright painful in its stupidity. The only thing more idiotic is the ending of this film, when the mysterious contents of a can Navorski has obsessively clung to throughout his ordeal are finally revealed.

While this film allegedly is not based on a real-life story in any way, there is a man who has spent an extended amount of time in an airport. Since 1988, Iranian expatriate Merhan Karimi Nessari has resided in Terminal 1 of Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport.

According to reports, Dreamworks did give Nessari some money for the rights to his story in order to avoid possible lawsuits over the concept. Instead, the filmmakers should worry about lawsuits from audience members wanting their money back.

"The Terminal" has been called "a comic meditation on waiting." Well, I found myself waiting for the story to finally kick in. I waited in vain.

"The Terminal" opens nationwide on Friday, June 18.

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