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Lost in Transportation 

Hanks and Spielberg join forces again in “The Terminal.”

In the new film, Tom Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a foreigner who finds himself in a kind of purgatory when he lands in a New York City airport. Because of a bureaucratic glitch, he can neither go back home nor enter the United States. Oddly enough, this is supposed to be funny — right away a bad sign, since Spielberg has always been least capable with comedy (see “1941”). He spends the first moments of the film belaboredly explaining the pitch, explaining it and re-explaining it so many times you wonder if the movie first opened in Viktor’s native Krakosia.

“Yees,” he would say in broken English, using the only word he knows.

In his portrayal of a befuddled Eastern European, Hanks enunciates like the Cold War comic Yakov Smirnoff, but his accent isn’t the only thing the film lays on thick. This is a setup broad enough to land a 747, and you can divine the list of improbabilities coming as easily as Stanley Tucci, the hard-nosed security chief and Viktor’s nemesis, spots suspicious passengers.

For example, Viktor learns to speak our language by comparing a New York travel guide to an identical one in his native Krakosian. He earns his daily bread by returning luggage carts for the 25-cent reward. Though initially distrusted by the airport’s staff, who observe him under the microscope of security cameras, he eventually charms them with his endearing ability to overcome adverse circumstances. He even befriends a small, though perfectly ethnically diverse, cadre of close pals.

As a self-contained universe, the terminal offers the bare essentials a newcomer like Viktor needs to get along. That includes chance encounters with eye-poppingly svelte stewardess and T-Mobile spokeswoman Catherine Zeta-Jones, who just falls over herself to ask out our paunchy and awkward foreigner.

(Have you ever gotten a sexy stewardess to speak to you about anything other than your seat belt or an extra can of ginger ale? If you have, did you find out she spends her spare time reading thick tomes on Napoleon and knows that the croissant was invented by the Romanians?)

Hanks, for his part, is stuck reprising a lesser version of the stranded workaholic in “Cast Away.” Instead of slimming down into a lean, mean, fish-stabbing machine of survival, he insinuates himself onto a construction crew and earns enough money to buy a sharp new suit. Now he’s ready to work the system. Perhaps all those pesky Third World countries need is a Brooks Brothers.

“The Terminal” contains the kind of populist touches, alternately easy and ridiculous, that we expect from a lesser Ron Howard picture or a particularly good John Hughes movie. It tells the kind of story that asks us to sigh when the down-and-out hero must survive on stacks of Saltines and condiments, and cheer when he finally gets his hamburger and fries. But it is not the kind that would notice there is little difference between the two.

Regardless of its resonant title and implications (“Life is waiting” is what the posters say), “The Terminal” lacks the aspiration to inspect modern life or American values, or even, surprisingly enough, the bureaucracy of an airport. It is not even a very remarkable fish-out-of-water story, opting for the easy laugh every time. The film takes meek stabs at all of the above, but there is no follow-through, and we’re left with a cynical aftertaste. If life is waiting, in the meantime it is very drab: Authority and order are unfeeling bureaucratic nightmares; security is a remedy for fear; and happiness is a plastic tray full of Burger King.

Rather than satirize these beliefs, “The Terminal” agrees with them. But people are not free, as the movie would have it, just because they optimistically maintain civility under the yoke of government. And tossing away your pager is not an act of civil disobedience. These are the banal philosophies of a credit-card commercial. *1/2 S

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