First-Class Fairy Tale

I won’t say Tom Hanks can do no wrong, but for a man who lives and works in Hollywood, his track record at doing almost everything right is pretty astonishing. He triumphs again in Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal , a feel-good film of such originality and sweetness in a summer of otherwise derivative sequels and remakes that it practically qualifies for miracle status. Certainly no actor with half of Mr. Hanks’ box-office draw, and no director of lesser vision and power than Mr. Spielberg, would ever have gotten it made. All I can say to them both is hallelujah. The Terminal finds them both in a Frank Capra mood, and the resulting charm is radiantly alive.

Next to being locked in a toll booth, I can think of no more boring place to be trapped than an airport. Mr. Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a decent and likable fellow from a fictitious Eastern European country called Krakozhia who finds himself the innocent victim of international chaos when his country falls to a military coup and its borders sealed while his plane is on its way to New York. When his flight lands at J.F.K., his passport and return ticket are confiscated by U.S. Customs, his tourist visa is revoked by the State Department, he doesn’t qualify for diplomatic immunity, and Viktor finds himself a citizen of nowhere, trapped in foreign country unable to speak the language and doomed to remain in the airport until somebody figures out what to do with him. All he wants to do is buy some Nikes and see Cats . Instead, he is confined to the International Transit Lounge. At first the script, by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson, seems both lighthearted and lightheaded, but as the hours grow into days and then weeks, it becomes clear that the airport terminal is a microcosm of a world of diverse people in which everyone waits for something-love, kindness, freedom, escape. With the passage of time, Viktor’s courage and resourcefulness transcend his initial fear and anguish, and he discovers a cosmic family of oddballs who live and work inside the airport at all hours of the night. Losing his meal vouchers immediately, he discovers that returning stray convenience carts will reward him with enough quarter refunds to hit the jackpot at Burger King. Pretty soon he figures out how to ward off starvation by raiding the airport vending machines, and learns how to speak English by watching the crawls on the bottom of the CNN television monitors. For fun, he plays cards with the baggage handlers for the contents of unclaimed luggage left in the lost and found, and for shelter he carves a unique home out of airport surplus. While the working-class personnel in the shops and food courts of the terminal adopt Viktor as a new and cherished member of their exclusive “family,” his every survival technique is thwarted by the stuffy, bureaucratic airport supervisor (Stanley Tucci) who searches for every loophole in the law to get rid of his hapless hostage and make him somebody else’s responsibility. (Playing the nemesis of a hero, like the truant officer chasing Huckleberry Finn, is a boo-hiss job for Stanley Tucci, but he does it beautifully, finding humor in every humiliation.) Meanwhile, the film pads out its comic meditation by introducing a number of half-realized subplots involving an aging janitor who enjoys watching passengers flip on their rear ends on his wet floors, a romance between an immigration officer (Zoe Saldana) and a food-service worker (Diego Luna, from Y Tu Mamá También ), and a sympathetic flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones, playing against type with warmth and charm) who befriends Viktor and leads him close to the brink of a not-entirely-convincing romantic interlude.

As this endearing but very strange movie wears on, the ideas wear thin. Suddenly we are informed that Viktor has been living at J.F.K. for nearly a year, and the movie begins to take on the fanciful aura of a fairy tale. Why doesn’t anybody ever try to bring in a translator, or inform this alien tourist-who has done nothing illegal and is no security threat-of his rights under the U.S. Constitution? Well, you could get picky and ask a few rude questions. But in a movie this entertaining, the occasional potholes are eventually smoothed by the masonry of Mr. Spielberg’s unsentimental direction, overwhelmed by the breathtaking majesty of one of the most terrific movie sets I’ve ever seen, and outnumbered by the bountiful artistic choices in Mr. Hanks’ admirable and colorful performance. Of course, there’s no such thing as a Krakozhian language, so he’s pretty much free to say anything he wants and pronounce it in an accent that sounds like the cartoon bubbles in the old Katzenjammer Kids comics. (“Fitz, rowr!”) But he never lapses into parody. Every single minute of his plight is totally believable, every digression melded into his broader vision of optimism. Throughout the movie, the real reason why Viktor has come to New York to fulfill a promise to his dead father is kept a secret that he guards protectively in an old Planters peanuts can. The revelation at the end, and its relation to Art Kane’s famous portrait of jazz musicians in Harlem, will make you glad that you came and grateful that you stayed to the end. The Terminal may not be a perfect motion picture, but it is perfectly gratifying until something better comes along.

Housewife Hell

One of life’s most perplexing mysteries, like why Bambis all over the world have turned from childhood friends to disease-carrying tick-infested enemies of the human race, is Hollywood’s obsession with remaking old movies that were never very good in the first place. Joining the marching ranks of third-rank retreads of second-rate flops, there is now Frank Oz’s pointless and unnecessary 2004 version of Bryan Forbes’ 1975 thriller The Stepford Wives . The original had a stone-washed air-conditioned look, but it also had a tension and an edge that kept you interested. Eschewing every element of suspense in the source material (a best-selling novel by Rosemary’s Baby author Ira Levin), and reducing the hair-raising story of a group of Connecticut housewives with feminist ideas who were turned into perfect robots by Husbands from Hell into a campy Paul Rudnick farce laced with politically incorrect sick jokes, just makes The Stepford Wives a chunk of limp-wristed corn that is tired, annoying, vile and stupid.

Bringing the women up to date, Mr. Rudnick has transformed Joanna, the brainy New York wife who smells something rotten among the manicured lawns of Stepford, from a photographer played by Katharine Ross in 1975 to a power-driven network president played by Nicole Kidman in 2004. When one of the trashy reality shows she’s developed backfires, she gets sacked by the network (huh? Television balks at prime-time garbage? This is a new one) and suffers a nervous breakdown. Her doofus husband (Matthew Broderick), who is only a lowly network vice president with no particular duties or functions, quits in support and moves her away to a suburban paradise where every house is the kind of colonial birthday cake that graces real-estate brochures and the covers of country-lifestyle magazines, but nobody actually lives in.

Joanna, who recovers from her electro-shock treatments fast enough to make the perfect meat loaf, tries to fit into this gated subdivision of bake sales and station wagons where the children are never seen, the men never work and all of the women appear to need their disposable rubber cleaning gloves surgically removed from their exquisitely manicured Streisand nails before they can beat their batter or prune their peonies. While the women wax perfect floors and fake perfect orgasms, the men gather at the Stepford Men’s Association, which is supposed to be a macho clubhouse but looks more like a converted insane asylum. Still dressed in basic Big Apple black, Ms. Kidman is appalled by the sight of so many women at the Simply Stepford Day Spa ready to work out under the Gestapo guidelines of über-matriarch Glenn Close, dressed in the kind of bright flowered prints that, in real life, would attract hornets, wasps and bumblebees. No wonder she bonds with two fellow misfits: an overweight Jewish slob who writes probing novels (Bette Midler) and a creepy, effeminate gay stereotype with a passion for pink (Roger Bart). Bringing it all ridiculously up to date, Mr. Rudnick’s Stepford welcomes one Jewish couple (Ms. Midler and Jon Lovitz) and one gay married couple (Mr. Bart and David Marshall Grant), although there isn’t a single family from A Raisin in the Sun seen anywhere on the street after sundown. Anyway, this trio milks Mr. Rudnick’s script of more one-liners than it can support before collapsing completely (which it eventually does). “The women are all sex-kitten bimbos and the men are all drooling nerds,” says Ms. Midler. “Doesn’t that seem strange to you?” “No,” replies Ms. Kidman, “I work in television.” These are the jokes.

But eventually they discover the secret the rest of us knew before we entered the Stepford city limits: Glenn Close and husband Christopher Walken are control freaks who have embedded department-store dummy replicas of the women with microchips that program them to be subservient to their inferior, insecure husbands to the point of even caddying for them on the golf course dressed like Daisy Mae at a Sadie Hawkins Day picnic. When country singer Faith Hill, making her acting debut, malfunctions, whirling around the floor in the middle of a square dance screeching “Do si do,” Ms. Kidman knows her fate is sealed and starts looking for the remote control with her name on it. Since Mr. Rudnick is famous for one-liners as well as an inability to write endings that make sense, the rest of the movie goes nowhere, but there are some pleasures: Ms. Midler changes from Fran Lebowitz into Doris Day, baking 2,000 cupcakes with pastel buttercream frosting, while Mr. Bart’s remote control turns him into a conservative gay Republican. I had to laugh at the sight of all the women in Stepford wearing frozen smiles and printed chiffon frocks, wheeling their supermarket carriages through the Safeway against a backdrop of beautifully stacked, color-coordinated egg cartons.

But the movie has a loopy sexist reversal that is every bit as desperate as it is preposterous. The moral is supposed to be that “perfect doesn’t work” the way it did for Ozzie and Harriet. But in the end of this mean-spirited allegory, the men are doing the housework and the women seem much happier and more fulfilled as ruthless ball-breaking shrews than as spouses, parents, partners or helpmates. Its naïve claim to be satirical is rendered impotent, because among the issues it raises (gay marriage, misogyny, genetic engineering, the beta male’s fear of competitive, better-educated women who earn more money, etc.), not one is taken seriously. The cast is impressive, although every single actor in the film has been seen to superior advantage elsewhere. With real people used as stand-ins for animation, digital composites, puppets and computer-generated animatronics, you get the kind of zoned-out lack of human identity you might expect from Frank Oz, who has devoted most of his career to directing Muppets. The result is an occasionally amusing yet mindless version of The Stepford Wives that looks like it was made and altered in the editing room, resembling a fallen soufflé that got shoved back in the oven and served as a frantic afterthought. To paraphrase Paul Rudnick’s Premiere magazine movie-critic alter ego, Libby Gelman-Waxner: It’s flat, cold, fork-resistant and tasteless, if you ask me.