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Playing Viktor Navorski, the hero of Steven Spielberg's new comedy-drama The Terminal, Tom Hanks pays homage to heart-tugging, acrobatic silent clowns like Charlie Chaplin and to absurdist, dough-bodied farceurs like Peter Sellers. Whenever the script gives him a chance, Hanks balances sentiment and slapstick as a traveler from the fictional Eastern European country of Krakhozia who gets stuck at New York's JFK airport indefinitely because rebels have toppled his home government and the United States hasn't recognized the new regime.

The concept governing his performance is that, underneath his naivete, Viktor has a truth-detector. It protects him from the shrewd machinations of frustrated Homeland Security officer Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), who simply wants to force Viktor out of his jurisdiction, and it locates the substance in a beautiful airline attendant, Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who flirts with the notion that Viktor could be her destiny.

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Like Chaplin, Hanks knows how to keep a poignant hero from becoming a pain. When Viktor discovers that returning an airport luggage cart produces a 25-cent refund, there's an infectious if desperate exuberance to the way he tosses off two joy-riding tykes, then pats them fondly. Like Sellers, Hanks pushes audio effects to extremes: The furry deepening of his voice for a Slavic accent produces deadpan hilarity. And, again like Sellers, he's willing to exploit a drooping physique for reverse-balletic effect: After Viktor uses old-country skills with wood and plaster to remodel a terminal gate, he does a victory dance that gets funnier with every fleshy jiggle.

During the opening sequences, Hanks is so consistently heartfelt and inventive, and Spielberg so attentive to his star, that you root for the movie to cohere as something wonderful. It never does. Not content for Viktor to flower as the kind of intuitive, capable guy who of course can make it in America - even the restricted America of the terminal - Spielberg and his screenwriters, Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson (who worked from a story by Andrew Niccol and Gervasi), labor overtime to spell out every metaphor about immigration and assimilation. A sign for an airport Borders store grows unbearably significant.

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Add heavy E.T. overtones - Viktor, an alien, yearns for home, and inspires ordinary Americans to see the magic of their home - and you've got a Humpty-Dumpty narrative. The Terminal might have clicked if Spielberg and company had treated it as a one-man show and organized it into blackout sketches, like Jerry Lewis' The Bellboy. As an ensemble piece, it goes splat.

The moviemakers portray the terminal workers who befriend Viktor, including an East Indian janitor, Gupta (Kumar Pallana), and a Latino food-service employee, Enrique Cruz (Diego Luna), as the epitome of the melting-pot ideal. In order to make sure no one misses the point, each gets an involved history or plot turn. Gupta fled to the United States to escape imprisonment for stabbing a cop who was shaking him down; Enrique yearns for beautiful customs officer Dolores Torres (Zoe Saldana). Unfortunately, like Gupta, who does a plate-spinning routine that results in broken dishes, the moviemakers fail to keep everything up in the air.

It's a lovely touch for Viktor to become Enrique's romantic envoy to Dolores, who stamps Viktor's papers every day. Exchanging what he learns about Dolores for meals from Enrique, Viktor arrives at a beguiling variation on the old Cyrano de Bergerac routine. When Dolores asks him who wants to woo her, and Viktor says not "man of mystery" but "man of misery," that piece of rough-hewn poetry elicits smiles and tears. (Enrique is so in love he's wretched.) But Spielberg and company can't sustain this doggerel bliss beyond its first blast of charm. The outcome is abrupt and incongruous, like much of the movie's second half - disastrously in the case of Viktor's own courtship of Amelia.

Again, there's a piquant amorous idea to a fellow on a forced wait falling for a woman so mobile that she alphabetizes her address book by city. Until she hooks up with Viktor, who captivates her with gallantry, Amelia is always dashing off, usually to meet a married man (Michael Nouri). Zeta-Jones marvelously exudes raven-haired glamour and melancholy, self-effacing humor.

But after making Viktor and Amelia's attraction persuasive and appealing, the movie throws it away. Aside from finagling a special one-day visa so Viktor can fulfill a promise he made to his late father, Amelia doesn't fit into Spielberg's game plan, which is to pit the good America of the People against the bad America of the Bureaucracy, embodied by Frank Dixon. Not even Tucci can bring to life the fussy, inhuman Dixon; the actor's trademark precision turns grating. Barry Shabaka Henley, as Dixon's right-hand man, steals their scenes with a wit-streaked inertia.

Spielberg delivers a master stroke when Viktor wins over Amelia with a burst of creativity, and the movie climaxes with a seductive out-of-left-field subplot centering on Art Kane's famous group photograph of jazz greats, Harlem 1958 - the raison d'etre for Viktor's New York journey. Spielberg believes, admirably, that art can grow from love, and vice-versa. But in The Terminal he makes the mistake of insisting on it, repeatedly.

The Terminal

Starring Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci

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Directed by Steven Spielberg

Rated PG-13

Released by DreamWorks

Time 128 minutes

Sun Score **


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