The Terminal

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, July 19, 2004


Terminal Boredom

In How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Toby Young's lightly fictionalized memoir of flopping as a celebrity journalist in New York, his humiliations are artfully aggravated by simultaneous spots of preposterous luck enjoyed by his real life friend Sacha Gervasi, a fellow Fleet Street hack who ventured to Hollywood instead. When Young gets fired from Vanity Fair, for example, Gervasi sells a knock-off of "The Full Monty" for a half million.

But when I idly checked the invaluable Internet Movie Database last year, Gervasi's run of good fortune seemed kaput. His new screenplay was a claustrophobic-sounding fable about an Eastern European traveler stuck permanently in an airline terminal. It sounded like Waiting for Godot meets No Exit, with a dollop of The Trial for added moroseness. I couldn't help thinking of "The Simpsons" episode where Krusty the Klown - having lost the rights to feature "Itchy & Scratchy" cartoons - desperately substitutes Communist Czechoslovakia's favorite animated existentialists "Worker and Parasite."

I gleefully scanned down to see which minor-leaguers had blundered into putting Gervasi's career-killing concept on screen:

Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

I should have guessed that the only people who'd think a movie about hanging out at "The Terminal" for nine months sounded like fun would be superstars so rich that their only recent experience with airports is the five feet of tarmac between the limo and the Gulfstream.

"The Terminal" is certainly more heart-warming than its tagline "Life is waiting" forebodes, but it's forgettable compared to Spielberg and Hanks' last lightweight collaboration, "Catch Me If You Can," not to mention their heavyweight landmark, "Saving Private Ryan." It's still an above-average movie, but the opportunity cost - the terrific film Spielberg and Hanks could have made together if they weren't piddling their time away on "The Terminal" - is painful to contemplate.

While "The Terminal" aspires to "Groundhog Day's" ultimately uplifting portrayal of a seemingly soul-deadening location, the script lacks that minor classic's extravagant invention and nasty Capraesque wit. Even the man-eating Catherine Zeta-Jones is reduced to a puddle of niceness.

While Hanks' long hot streak at picking good scripts is defunct, his sensible career transition from leading man to character lead is back on track after his iffy con man in "The Ladykillers." He plays Viktor Navorski, a good-hearted Slav (perhaps the cousin of Andy Kaufman's Lotka from "Taxi") who disembarks at JFK on the last flight from Krakozhia. A half-completed coup back home plunges the punctilious Homeland Security administrator (Stanley Tucci) into uncertainty over the validity of Viktor's passport, so he temporizes by telling Viktor he must linger indefinitely in the international transit concourse. Being that rare individual, foreign or American, who doesn't treat our immigration laws with contempt, Viktor dutifully stays put.

Gervasi's premise is neither sensible - airports have enough trouble keeping domestic homeless people from infesting terminals without the government relegating random foreigners to a life of scavenging saltine crackers at the food court just because yet another coup has occurred - nor satirical. In an age in which a 94-year-old ex-Marine general gets the third degree when his Medal of Honor sets off the metal detector (because we wouldn't want to ethnically profile passengers, now would we?), airport security is ripe for a brutal lampooning, but "The Terminal" doesn't even try.

Hanks is excellent, although much of the appeal of his performance is that you say to yourself, "Hey, that guy up there with the Ukrainian accent and beaten-down Warsaw Bloc body language is Mr. All-American Regular Joe." If instead, Belarus' best actor gave the exact same performance, it just wouldn't be the same.

This kind of acting-for-the-sake-of-acting, however, would be more effective on stage, as would a plot limited to one overlit building. While watching the master director's camera swirl extravagantly from one floor to another in the packed concourse, I started to wonder whether Spielberg was filming on location or, as it turned out, built an entire terminal from scratch. His vast set would be awe-inspiring in a theatre, but the how'd-they-do-that questions it raises on screen just interfere with the unconscious suspension of disbelief that's key to enjoying the more realistic medium of film.

If Gervasi wants to milk his dopey little idea further, he should find a composer and choreographer to turn it into a Broadway musical. Toby Young would be apoplectic.

Rated a mild PG-13 for some bad language.


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