The entertainment value of any Steven Spielberg film is directly proportional to its inherent frivolity - fact. Despite enthusiastic attempts to adopt the portentous mantle of Stanley Kubrick, Spielberg's finest works have all been popcorn-friendly fluff. From the high-speed thrills of Duel and the bone-crunching shocks of Jaws, through the sci-fi shenanigans of Close Encounters and ET, to the whip-cracking spectacle of the Indiana Jones trilogy, no one has done upmarket B-movie rip-offs more efficiently than Spielberg. He consistently falls flat, however, when he starts to take himself seriously, provoking the "heartfelt" tedium of The Color Purple, the pompous plodding of Amistad and the dreary melodrama of Saving Private Ryan. While the heavyweight Holocaust drama of Schindler's List may have landed the prestigious Best Picture Oscar, it's the monster-munching fun of Jurassic Park that showcases Spielberg's true cinematic talents.
After boring the intellectual pants off everybody with the futuristic twaddle of AI: Artificial Intelligence (a film he "realised from the vision of the late Stanley Kubrick"), Spielberg seemed to be easing his way back towards blissful inconsequence with the caper movie Catch Me If You Can, in which Leonardo DiCaprio romped around the world on the strength of a winning smile and a psychotic sense of self-confidence. Now Spielberg taxis further along the runway to recovery with The Terminal, a tale of a man forced to live in an airport, which plays like Kafka as retold by Forrest Gump. Tom Hanks is Viktor Navorski, a native of the eastern European state of Krakozhia, whose country in effect disintegrates while he is in flight to New York. Arriving stateless at JFK with a now invalid passport, Viktor is forced to live in the airport until the US authorities, personified by a fidgety Stanley Tucci, figure out what to do with him. Cue entertainingly absurd gags about Hanks's character attempting to find his feet in a world of burger bars, public toilets and unaffordable consumer durables. He encounters a microcosm of American society, from the underpaid immigrant workers with whom he strikes up an inevitable friendship to the heartless upper-class bores from whose plush courtesy lounges he is unceremoniously ejected.
Apparently drawing inspiration from the real-life case of "Alfred Merhan", who spent several years in Charles de Gaulle Airport, The Terminal presents an extended riff on a single theme that would seem sorely overstretched were it not for the charms of its central players. Hanks is splendid as the bumbling Viktor, adding a fruity eastern twist to his amiable "everyman" shtick, wringing humour and pathos from a role that could easily have been merely irritating. Tucci, too, is in fabulous form as Viktor's officious nemesis Frank Dixon, a bureaucratic nightmare who attempts to explain the fate of Krakozhia by smashing up his neatly packed lunch, and whose interpersonal skills go downhill from there. The rising hostility between these two provides the comedic heart of the film, with the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski atmospherically contrasting their familiar facial inflections with the inhuman background of the airport. Scenes of Dixon watching Big Brother-style on CCTV as Viktor figures out how to scam quarters by returning baggage trolleys and then lands a construction job rebuilding one of the terminals are beautifully orchestrated and excellently played, getting the very best from these well-matched adversaries.
Poor old Catherine Zeta-Jones fares far less well as the lovelorn flight attendant Amelia Warren, a woefully underwritten role that miscasts her as a simpering dolt (despite her spiky turns in America's Sweethearts and Intolerable Cruelty) and smacks of a cynical ploy to attract a wide audience. Worse still is Spielberg's unstoppable desire to turn a neatly inconsequential gag ("Ever feel like you're living in an airport?") into a paradigm for "universal" human experience, resulting in the usual blend of dramatic hyperbole and saccharine-sweet sentiment - not to mention a running time that edges needlessly past the two-hour mark when 90 minutes would have more than sufficed. Sub-plots about the real reason for Viktor's pilgrimage to New York City facilitate much mawkish drivel about father-son loyalty, while a ludicrously protracted climax features the now familiar Spielbergian superfluity of endings - I counted at least three.
What Spielberg really needs is a producer brave enough to insist that he stop the waffle and cut to the chase - something a director of his unassailable stature is clearly never going to get. Instead, we will have to make do with the uneven but none the less undeniable charms of The Terminal. For all its faults, it is Spielberg's best film in years, reminding us what an effective entertainer he can be when not utterly overburdened by the hefty baggage of his own self-appointed cultural importance.