Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Catching up with "The Visitor"

Even the most ardent film fan cannot get to everything, so it's no surprise that there are a few movies nominated for major Oscars that I have not seen. (The exception to "major" being in the foreign language, documentary and short film categories, since these movies often do not get a wide theatrical release.)

First up was "The Visitor," starring Richard Jenkins as a lonely Connecticut College professor who befriends a couple of illegal immigrants living in his New York apartment. Next I'll review "Vicky Christie Barcelona," as soon as I can track down a DVD copy. NetFlix has me in a long backlog.

Richard Jenkins does not have a household name, but he's very well-respected in Hollywood as a character actor. The guy's been around for decades, putting in memorable performances in sometimes tiny roles, which has started to translate into bigger roles. He has one of those faces that are so quintessentially American -- sad eyes, pockmarked cheeks, indistinct features -- that he gets cast in a lot of roles of fathers and men of authority.

In "The Visitor" he plays Walter Vale, a man so withdrawn and internalized that a lesser actor could easily have disappeared and left us with a movie that didn't connect emotionally. Jenkins packs a powerhouse without ever really coming out of his shell. But in his shy glances and perfunctory conversations, he lets us see the pain and loneliness of the man. Walter's wife has recently died, and even his attempts to learn to play the piano in her memory (she was a famous pianist) results in him canceling the instructor after one lesson.

Walter comes to New York to present a paper that he's ostensibly co-written with a colleague when she falls ill. I saw "ostensibly" because Walter admits to his boss that he had little to do with actually writing it, signing his name to give a younger professor a leg up. Walter is only teaching one class this semester so he can concentrate on his book. The way he sits in his office, gazing out the window at students talking and cavorting, like a starving man presented with a porterhouse, lets us know that no book is actually forthcoming.

When he arrives at his apartment, he finds Tarek and Zainab living there. They are Muslim immigrants from Syria and Senegal, respectively, and have been duped into believing the apartment was free to rent. After nearly coming to blows with Tarek, Walter allows them to stay while they look for other arrangements.

At this point I am obliged to go into my persnickety critic mode about Walter's apartment. It is huge by normal standards, with several bedrooms and a large common area, and by New York City standards it is nearly a palace. There is no way this place rents for less than $3,000 a month. Why Walter would pay to maintain an expensive residence he rarely visits is beyond me. My guess is that his wife kept the place for frequent performances in the city, and the fact that he has not disposed of it is another indication of his own isolation. If so, the filmmakers needed to give us a hint along these lines. Supposition is not sufficient for good storytelling.

Anyway, back to our new friends. Walter bonds with Tarek, although Zainab remains distant. Tarek teaches Walter to play the African drum, and soon they're performing together in drum circles in Washington Square Park (which I often passed through while attending NYU).

Tragedy strikes when Tarek is arrested for jumping the ticket line at the subway, and he's soon put in immigration limbo and threatened with deportment. The second half of the movie consists of Walter visiting Tarek in confinement, dealing with an attorney to help him, and playing host to Tarek's mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass), who has come from Michigan to await his release.

This second act is where the movie breaks down a little. It plays mostly as an indictment of the U.S. immigration system, with Mouna even commenting that her son's treatment reminds her of law enforcement in Syria. The emotional high point is supposed to be when Walter finally breaks loose of his emotional coil and screams at some unresponsive INS agents that Tarek doesn't deserve to be deported because he's a good person. As if someone with a kind heart who broke the law is morally superior to one who's a jerk.

Writer/director Thomas McCarthy, an actor who made quite a directorial debut several years ago with "The Station Agent," wrote this part specifically for Richard Jenkins, which indicates what an excellent eye he has for the possibilities of actors who aren't big stars. In structuring the second half of "The Visitor" as a sometimes preachy morality tale, though, he fails to realize all of those possibilities.

Three stars out of four.

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