Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Underachievers: The Terminal

Since I just introduced the idea for posts highlighting over- and underachievers on Saturday, it seems only fitting that I should now be inspired to write my first Underachievers post, to go hand-in-hand with the first Overachievers post.

Before watching The Terminal last night, I would have thought that anything with Steven Spielberg's name on it would rise to a certain minimum level of quality. But The Terminal reminded me that Spielberg has his Hooks, his Lost Worlds and his Crystal Skulls, just like anyone else out there.

Simply put, The Terminal was ridiculous. Almost everything that happened in it was unbelievable, even if it was based on something that really happened, as my wife told me halfway through. I looked it up just now, and apparently, an Iranian refugee lived in Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris for a whopping 18 years -- my wife had thought it was half that -- from 1988 until 2006, and it was only a hospitalization that eventually forced him out. It goes to show you just how poorly The Terminal was made, that a story of a Krakozhian refugee living in JFK for less than a year seems like a completely unfathomable prospect.

(Spoilers to follow.)

Let's start with the worst part of the film: Its villain. Stanley Tucci plays an airport security bureaucrat who is in line to become a bigger airport security bureaucrat, who basically comes to think of Victor Navorsky (Tom Hanks) as his biggest nemesis. Everything Tucci's Frank Dixon does in the entire movie is mean and unmotivated. He's cornered by a loophole in Navorsky's legal status, in which he can't be deported to his home country (whose government was overthrown in a coup) but he also can't be allowed into the United States, because the U.S. is no longer recognizing passports issued by the fictitious Krakozhia. By all measures, the nice bumbling man has a very even-tempered adjustment to being forced to live in an airport, without any long-term means of sustaining himself. Yet Dixon views his very attempts to survive and thrive as a defiant act of needling him. This is a blatantly false attempt to create a straw man villain for the audience to root against, and it relies on a bunch of bullshit contrivances to escalate the supposed rivalry between the two men. For example, at one point, Navorsky is hired by a construction crew to work on a new wing of the airport, and Dixon learns that Navorsky is being paid $19/hour under the table -- "Which is more than I make," says Dixon. So this guy is one of the top officials at JFK International Airport, and he makes less than $39,520 per year? We're talking 2004 dollars, but still -- total B.S. The rest of the artificial conflict between Dixon and Navorsky is so artificial, I won't even get into it.

Then let's go to some of the stuff Navorksy spends this year doing at JFK. One subplot is that he's helping a Latino guy involved in making the meals given out on the planes, played by Diego Luna. Luna's Enrique Cruz is in love with Dolores Torres, played by future hot commodity Zoe Saldana. Torres is a lower-level bureaucrat who sits at a desk with a big red stamp, denying Navorsky's various attempts to submit paperwork for a visa. But Dolores doesn't even know who Enrique is. So Enrique enlists Navorsky to ask her questions about herself, in his highly broken English, each time he tries anew to submit paperwork. And Enrique feeds him much-needed airline dinners each night, to find out what Dolores has said about herself each day. Not only is this an extremely roundabout way for Enrique to find out information -- don't they have some other mutual acquaintance at the airport? -- but it culminates in the most ridiculous way you could imagine. One day, Navorsky presents a diamond engagement ring to Dolores, on behalf of Enrique. But here's the thing -- they've never even spoken to each other. Because this is a bogus Hollywood contraption, Dolores accepts the proposal, and the next scene is them leaving the airport chapel, a married couple. Huh?

I could go on. Navorsky's love interest is a pathetic airline stewardess played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is constantly waiting for pages from the married man she's having an affair with. To give her character supposed depth, she's always reciting details about historical figures she's read about in books. Then there's the ridiculous janitor character, played by Kumar Pallana, who I loved so much in Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket. He starts out as another unmotivated rival of Navorsky -- he hates Navorsky for apparently one reason, which is that Navorsky tried to get his meal vouchers out of the trash after the janitor had already collected it up. But of course, he ends up becoming a close friend, one of the many blue collar airport workers who put Navorsky on a pedestal as some kind of champion of the little guy. His character arc resolves in a ridiculous scene in which he runs out on the tarmac with his mop, in front of the wheels of an arriving airplane, in order to delay its eventual departure. Yes, it's as unintentionally absurd as it sounds.

All this nonsense might be worth it if Navorksy had a good reason for wanting to get into New York. But for the longest time, we aren't given a clue what the reason is. We know Navorsky has a container of Planters peanuts that he cherishes, and once plants a kiss on -- we assume his reason for coming to New York has something to do with that. My wife and I were predicting that maybe the ashes of his father, or wife, or someone like that, were in the can, and he needed to dump them in New York as part of a promise. When Navorsky's purpose is finally revealed, it can't help but seem pretty arbitrary -- he's trying to get the signature of a jazz great to complete a collection for his deceased father. His father loved jazz and had written numerous jazz greats who appeared in a newspaper photo, asking them all for their autographs. Navorsky has come to America to get the signature of the last person who never responded to his father's request. Really? Really?

The one thing I will say is that Tom Hanks is by far the best part of this movie -- and perhaps the only tolerable part. He's as likable as usual, and gives a performance that is far more interesting than the film deserves. However, Hanks is totally failed by the script, which doesn't give his character much to do -- he's a protagonist whose goals are not fully articulated, and who is the passive recipient of most of the things that end up happening to him. The movie conveniently allows his character to learn English, when he knows next to nothing in the first scene -- so that makes his apparent disconnect from the audience and from the events around him a little smaller. But it shouldn't be a surprise that in a movie where almost everything is unbelievable, even an Oscar winner and a generally beloved performer can't help more than just a little bit.

The Terminal is terminally flawed.

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