June 28, 2004 12:00 PM

Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Kumar Pallana

COMEDY-DRAMA

CRITIC’S CHOICE

As a preschool teacher might put it, Hanks and director Steven Spielberg play well together. This entertaining movie is the duo’s third film collaboration, following Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me If You Can. While three times doesn’t prove their luckiest charm, this tale of a man marooned for months at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport is an honorable effort that succeeds in amusing while also telling us a little about America the way it is now and the way we wish it were.

Hanks is Viktor Navorski, a tourist who arrives at JFK to find out that his fictional Eastern European homeland of Krakozhia has undergone a coup and he is temporarily a man without a country. He’s ineligible for entry into the U.S. and unable to go home. Confined to the airport, he at first barely survives on club sandwiches made by layering mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise between saltines. But this would-be visitor to America soon proves himself a model of Yankee ingenuity. To the consternation of the stuffy bureaucrat (Tucci) overseeing his case, Navorski finds a job at the airport and befriends its staff, many of whom were once newcomers to this country too.

Zeta-Jones, though lovely as a flight attendant on whom Navorski develops a crush, only touches down for brief appearances between flights. The movie mostly sails along on Hanks’s considerable charm and Navorski’s resourcefulness until near the end, when it tries for a puffed-up finish and collapses like a soufflé gone bad. The film’s lesson, if it has one, is voiced by Tucci’s boss, who reminds the uptight Tucci, “Compassion: That’s the foundation of this country.” Spielberg and Hanks show enormous compassion for Navorski, as he does for his new American pals and they for him–a sentiment worth remembering as we draw close to celebrating America’s birthday. (PG)

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