As Bad as They Say?

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It used to be said that Hollywood was the art of the deal. Now Hollywood is the biz of the buzz. Buzz is the murmur that precedes a film's release; it usually starts in a studio's publicity department. But good buzz can turn bad when outsiders see the film and start dishing. (The outsiders are almost never critics. We've been out of the power equation for ages.) Tabloid headlines play a role too. When the stars are Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez and the film is Gigli, the anticipatory mood can quickly sour from must-see to buzz-saw.

Bad buzz has recently hit the summer's big grownup drama, Steven Spielberg's The Terminal, and the big grownup comedy, The Stepford Wives. Stepford endured lots of rewriting, reshooting and trimming to a terse 93 min. In other words, the film — a remake of the 1975 thriller about "perfect" suburban women who turn out to be robots — underwent the same radical makeover, the same behavioral modification, as the wives of Stepford. And with the same goal: to make it prettier and more pleasing. As for the Spielberg film, in early June the Internet cinephile site Ain't It Cool News blared the headline IS THE TERMINAL RESHOOTING ITS ENDING RIGHT NOW?! and noted that some industry screenings had been canceled.

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There would seem to be no downside to a film directed by Mr. All-Time Box Office Champ and starring Tom Hanks, who has often turned iffy projects (like Forrest Gump) into smash hits. The 10 films Hanks starred in before this year each grossed more than $100 million at the North American wickets. He faltered only with this spring's The Ladykillers, and that one doesn't count. (Making a film with indie icons like the Coen brothers — or with Charlie Kaufman, as Jim Carrey did for the similarly low-grossing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — is considered image-polishing pro bono work for a big star, like an off-Broadway stint or a benefit concert.)

In The Terminal, Viktor Navorski (Hanks) arrives at a New York City airport on a flight from his native land, Krakozhia. The country has just suffered a coup, and until the U.S. recognizes a legitimate regime, he can't go into the city or back home. (It's not explained why many others on his flight wouldn't be in the same predicament.) So Viktor is under airport arrest; to find food, work, a place to sleep and a woman to love, he must rely on his own resources. Which are considerable. This is, after all, a Spielberg movie (Viktor is E.T., the sweet alien who wants to fulfill his mission and go home) and a Hanks film (Viktor is the castaway, one man in a strange environment, making do with what's available).

The surprise about The Terminal is not that it got bad buzz but that it's a bad film. Several bad films, actually. First it's a comedy of desperation, with lots of sight gags (a machine that spits quarters in Viktor's face, too many people slipping on a wet floor) in the style of French comic actor-director Jacques Tati. Then it's a love story, as Viktor romances a flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Finally the uplifting and heart tugging kick in. The Terminal is Spielberg's shortest feature since the first Jurassic Park, yet it drags, plods, piling one lifeless situation atop another. For all the effort and good intentions, the movie is in-terminal-ble.

In the case of Buzz v. Stepford, yes, the movie is a little messy. But that's forgivable, since it has a wonderfully wounding malice directed at both the Stepford, Conn., contingent of Energizer Bunny wives and the New Yorkers who have just moved in. Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman), a just-fired network boss, wears black to the town's July 4 picnic. "Only high-powered castrating Manhattan bitches wear black," she is told. "Is that what you wanted to be?" Her demure reply: "Ever since I was a little girl."

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