About two-thirds of the way through ``The Terminal,'' the adorable and problematic new offering from America's sweethearts Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, I realized what makes it unique among recent movies.
Here's a film made by grown-ups for grown-ups, on grown-up themes of statelessness and belonging. Yet you could show it to a 6-year-old and have him or her understand all the nuances of plot and characterization. I'm not saying it's a kiddie film. It's merely simple without being square, a disarming moral fable that lacks violence, sex, or four-letter words. OK, there's one scene involving a cuss, but tellingly, the gag hinges on misinterpretation.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Hanks plays a man-child: Viktor Navorski, freshly arrived at JFK Airport from the fictional Slavic republic of Krakozhia. Correction: From what used to be Krakozhia, for while Viktor slept, a violent revolution has rocked his country. When he tries to get through US Immigration, he is informed he cannot have a passport from a place that no longer exists and is forthwith directed to the International Arrivals Lounge to wait.
He waits for the better part of a year.
"The Terminal'' is based very loosely on the real-life case of Merhan Nasseri, an Iranian refugee and victim of similar bureaucratic follies who at last report had been living in Charles de Gaulle Airport's Terminal One for 15 years. Spielberg and screenwriters Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson (working from a story by Gervasi and Andrew Niccol) choose not to play their adaptation as that sort of Kafkaesque horror story but rather as a gentle and crowd-pleasing comedy of community sprouting in the impersonal plastic soil of travel limbo.
So Viktor moves slowly from being a shellshocked Robinson Crusoe to becoming one of the airport's multiethnic fixtures. He befriends Gupta (Wes Anderson regular Kumar Pallana), the crotchety East Indian janitor who likes to watch travelers skid on his freshly waxed floors. He plays Cupid between Enrique in Food Services (Diego Luna from ``Y Tu Mama Tambien'') and Dolores in Immigration (Zoe Saldana). He teaches himself English in weeks by comparing a Krakozhian Fodor's with its American counterpart, and, clearly a resourceful fellow, renovates the deserted Gate 67 into a home away from home. After a while, it simply becomes Home.
Two characters loom large in Viktor's tiny universe. The airport's INS honcho, Frank Dixon, is a Type-A fussbudget who would like nothing more than for this problem to be gone; the by-the-book ruses Dixon (Stanley Tucci) and his underlings concoct to starve or cajole Viktor toward the exits (and thus arrest by somebody, anybody else) are made even funnier by Tucci's beautiful slow burn. And whether you choose to believe that Catherine Zeta-Jones could ever play a mere flight attendant is up to you; ``The Terminal'' de-glams her enough and makes her character, Amelia, so haplessly addicted to her married lover (``Flashdance'' hunk Michael Nouri, of all people) that I caved. Amelia is passing through her life the way you or I pass through an airport, and there's a sadness there that Zeta-Jones handles delicately, sets down, and discreetly looks away from.
Viktor, by contrast, is stuck on pause, and the film's sweet comic irony is that he comes to like it there. There's some business with a mysterious Planter's Peanut canister whose contents call him on to Manhattan - all the other characters are crazy to know what's in it - but clearly inertia has its pleasures. ``The Terminal'' isn't content with that, though; it can't resist turning Viktor into a hero, a symbol of little-man gumption to the airport's service staff.
Indeed, the character could be Forrest Gump's smarter cousin from The Land of Funny Accents, a holy fool whose purpose is to bring us together under the umbrella of decency. That's all well and good, but do the rest of the characters have to be reduced to patronizingly lovable ethnic extras in the process? Spielberg wants to give us the all-American melting pot, but the film keeps coming down with the cutes. Some of you might laugh when Viktor's friends arrange a dinner date for him with Amelia, and Gupta starts juggling dishes to keep the momentum going. Others might notice who the butt of the joke is and cringe a little inside.
Tech credits, as Variety likes to say, are superb. The fake terminal set created by production designer Alex McDowell seems an entire world (with, it must be said, an extraordinary amount of product placement from the likes of Burger King and Sbarro). Janusz Kaminski's camerawork conveys both drabness and pockets of transient visual beauty, while John Williams comes up with a score almost as light on its feet as the one he did for ``Catch Me If You Can.''
Hanks is winning and huggable and, yes, decent. Yet he stays well within familiar bounds, and ``The Terminal'' is, in the end, a minor work for both him and his director - felicitous in its comedy, touching in its drama, but not quite straying out of its ziplocked universe to breathe real air. Like so many of Spielberg's films, it's the dream of a brilliant child, and a lovely place to tarry before returning to adulthood.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.