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In the first few scenes of The Terminal, Tom Hanks comes perilously close to losing himself in an all too familiar Forrest. Wandering wide-eyed through the New York airport that will soon become his home, his Viktor Navorski is initially a sweet-natured simp, nattering on in a vaguely offensive Eastern-bloc accent about Cats and Ramada Inns and clutching a mysterious tin of peanuts that might as well be a box of chawklits. Only when he quits the feesh-out-of-water routine and engages in some inspired silent-movie-style physical comedy does Hanks give Navorski a certain dignity.

If The Terminal ultimately steers clear of Foreign Gump territory—Navorski’s problem, it turns out, isn’t his flawed head but his flawless heart—it remains similar to another wobbly Hanks vehicle: Cast Away, in which a lost soul has to rely on his wits (and a volleyball) to survive in desolation. But whereas Robert Zemeckis’ marooned-male fantasy was purely fictional (and a bit of a bore), Steven Spielberg’s is loosely based on fact (and more than a mess): Since 1988, real-life loner Merhan Karimi Nasseri has been stranded in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle International Airport, a victim, the Iranian man has claimed, of having his passport and refugee certificate stolen. Essentially, Nasseri has been unable to prove who he is or where he’s from, so he continues to live in limbo, huddled a few feet from a cocktail joint called the Bye Bye lounge.

Spielberg bought the rights to Nasseri’s fascinating story, but instead of presenting a portrait of detachment and loneliness—or, at the very least, a somber immigrant’s song—the director pulls, well, a Spielberg, wildly shifting tones, cramming in cutesy sight gags, and trying to enlighten and entertain at once. Despite a few ham-handed jabs at homeland-security thuggishness, the populist-to-a-fault director cares little for the real world or the real man who inspired his movie. If Nasseri’s airport is a de facto prison, Navorski’s is a surreally sprawling amusement park where Catherine Zeta-Jones is the most popular ride.

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When Navorski lands at John F. Kennedy International—re-created via a monstrous set that looks like a zero-imagination shopping mall, complete with a Borders (oooh, symbolism)—he learns that his homeland, Krakozhia, is in the midst of a military coup. In an ugly early scene intended to be hi-larious, airport security chief Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) demonstrates that Krakozhia is no longer being recognized as a nation by violently crushing a bag of chips with an apple, spraying snacks all over the dumbfounded foreigner. Smirking the whole time, Dixon tells Navorski that “America is closed” to him and he must stay put until the red tape is untangled. That will take months, of course—or at least long enough for him to fall in love with a sexy stew, befriend every working-class schmo in the place, and take care of what’s really inside that beaten-up tin of nuts.

Navorski is never fleshed out as anything more than a vaudeville routine—which actually suits Hanks, who has always been better at making us laugh than cry. There are several dialogue-free set pieces in which America’s anointed Everyman delivers genuine, emotion-rich guffaws: Navorski sets up his makeshift home in under-construction Gate 67, and his futile first-night attempt to get comfortable on a row of hard chairs has a Chaplin-esque beauty to it. So does the sight of Hanks wandering the airport in his bathrobe—the actor as doughy as ever and still equipped with that goofy grin—and trying to bathe in a tiny bathroom sink. And when dirt-broke Navorski finally scrounges up enough money to buy a Whopper at Burger King, the look of bliss on Hanks’ greasy, stuffed face upon first chomp is enough to counter the fast-food naysaying of Super Size Me.

Navorski eventually gets an under-the-table construction gig at the airport, but although his co-workers marvel at the newcomer’s way with tools, we’re never told how he learned such skills—or, for that matter, much else about the man. None of the supporting characters are drawn beyond stereotype, either, but at least Spielberg always gets the kind of talent that can make something of nothing. Y Tu Mamá También’s Diego Luna, still in horny mode as food-service worker Enrique Cruz, is sweetly likable as his character sneaks nourishment to Navorski in exchange for information on the Latino cutie’s secret crush, immigrations officer Dolores Torres (Thandie Newton look-alike Zoë Saldana). And the flick’s biggest laugh-getter is Kumar Pallana, whom Royal Tenenbaums fans will remember as the knife-wielding Pagoda. As crusty janitor Gupta—who’s harboring a secret that’s conveniently exploited in the gone-gushy denouement—Pallana is a hoot as his character takes a twisted glee in watching hurried travelers wipe out in his just-mopped wet spots.

Not all of the actors come out as clean, however. As type-A villain Dixon, who would love nothing more than to have the Krakozhian illegally flee the airport and become someone else’s problem, Tucci isn’t sure if he’s supposed to be funny or menacing. In an extended scene in which Navorski helps a detained Russian smuggle pain medication for his ailing father, Tucci goes for intense but is undermined by a script heavy with punch lines about goats. Of course, Tucci fares better than the biggest casting gaffe here: Zeta-Jones, whose sleazy flight attendant bides her time flirting with Navorski until her married paramour makes up his mind. Her bombshell character’s lust for a tubby homeless guy who can’t speak her language is never close to believable—especially during a supposedly tender dinner scene that concludes with a Naked Gun–esque cutaway to Gupta spinning plates (yes, really).

Spielberg’s previous movie also centered around the friendly skies, but the cat-and-mouse charmer Catch Me If You Can was consistent: a pleasant popcorn accompaniment that never tried to put substance over style. It, too, was based on a true story, and the director stayed fairly loyal to Frank Abagnale Jr.’s rollicking tale of his con-artist youth and his happy-ending adulthood. Here, Spielberg can’t decide whether to make a screwball comedy, a flimsy romance, or a political drama, and he big-budgets Nasseri’s tale until it’s completely lost in translation. If the hapless Iranian’s real-life ending turns out anything like The Terminal’s, he’s better off staying put at the Bye Bye lounge.CP