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Hullabaloo


Saturday, April 26, 2008

 
Saturday Night At The Movies


Crazy rhythms: The Visitor doesn’t miss a beat

By Dennis Hartley
















If Richard Jenkins doesn’t get an Oscar nod for his amazing performance in Thomas McCarthy’s new comedy-drama, The Visitor, I will personally picket the Academy. Writer-director-actor McCarthy’s previous effort was the critical favorite The Station Agent, and once again he draws us into an extended family of very believable, warm-blooded characters, generously giving all of his actors plenty of room to breathe.

Jenkins absolutely inhabits the character of the life-tired, middle-aged widower Walter Vale. He is a Connecticut college professor leading a life of quiet desperation; he sleepwalks through his dreary workday, and it’s obvious that any inspirational spark is long gone from an unwavering lesson plan that is more aged than his students. His personal life has become rote as well; most of his leisure time is spent puttering, and half-heartedly plunking away on his late wife’s piano. In the film’s wonderfully played opening scene, Walter fires his private piano teacher, who turns out to be the fourth in a row that he has dismissed. As a parting shot, she suggests that if he should decide that mastering the keyboard is just not his forte, especially “at his age”, she would be most interested in buying his “wife’s” piano (ouch). Clearly, Walter needs to get out more.

When Walter travels to New York to attend a conference and present a paper, he has a big surprise awaiting him at the seldom-used apartment he keeps in the city. Unbeknownst to the professor, a mysterious third party has sublet his digs to an immigrant couple-a Syrian musician named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira). After some tense moments between the mutually startled parties, the forlorn Walter invites them to stay rather than turning them out on the street. As a friendship slowly grows between the three, Walter begins to emerge from his cocoon, prompted by Tarek’s infectious enthusiasm for pounding out joyful rhythms on his African djembes. Before he knows it, the staid professor is loosening his tie and joining Tarek in a drum circle at a public park. When Tarek is arrested by undercover cops in the subway due to a misunderstanding and ends up at a detention center for illegal immigrants, Walter hires a lawyer and becomes even more ensconced in the couple’s lives. Add one more unexpected “visitor” to the mix-Tarek’s widowed mother Mouna (the lovely and stately Israeli actress Hiam Abbass) who has traveled from Detroit to investigate why her son hasn’t contacted her for an alarming period of time. Now, all the elements of a “perfect storm” are in place for the reawakening of Walter Vale.

Thanks to Jenkins’ subtle, quietly compelling performance, that transformation is the heart of the film, and an absolute joy to behold. Although he has over 70 films to his credit (mostly supporting roles, but always memorable), he is probably most recognizable for his portrayal of the “late” father in HBO’s popular series, Six Feet Under Hiam Abbass is a revelation here as well; she and Jenkins play off each other in sublime fashion in all of their scenes together. In fact, no one in the cast hits a false note, ever. This is undoubtedly due in large part to the fact that McCarthy is an “actor’s director” in the literal sense; he remains active in tackling roles himself (most recently appearing in HBO’s final season of The Wire as a newspaper journalist who manufactures his stories).

The “strange bedfellows” setup of the plot may look like The Goodbye Girl or The Odd Couple on paper, but this not a glib Neil Simon play, where characters throw perfectly timed zingers at each other; these people feel, and interact, like real human beings. There is plenty of humor, but there is also genuine heartbreak and bittersweet melancholy. The important thing is that it is all perfectly balanced, and beautifully nuanced.

Although the circumstances leading up to Tarek’s unfortunate detention could be viewed as an allusion to the sometimes Kafkaesque scenarios faced by illegal immigrants in a post 9-11 world, McCarthy doesn’t get preachy on this particular issue or use his film as a polemic. In fact, this movie has more in common with the keen social observations of Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things or the gentle, knowing satire of Bill Forsyth’s low key culture-clash comedy Local Hero than, say, The Road to Guantanamo.

One thing I will say-if the overwrought and vastly overrated Crash (2005) could win Best Picture (of which I lamented here) then surely The Visitor, which deals with many of the same themes, and in a less histrionic and more palatable manner, deserves consideration as well (we shall see). In the meantime, you don’t want to miss this lovely little gem.

Hello, stranger: Living on Tokyo Time,Stranger Than Paradise, Night on Earth, Mystery Train, Lost in Translation, The Brother From Another Planet, Tokyo Pop, ,Crocodile Dundee A Great Wall, Ninotchka,The Wild Child, West is West, Bend It Like Beckham , East Is East, The Gods Must Be Crazy, The Last Wave, My Beautiful Laundrette, Where the Green Ants Dream, Moscow On The Hudson, Barcelona, The Coca-Cola Kid, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World , Montenegro, Walkabout , The Emerald Forest, L'Auberge espagnole, Due South Seasons (TV series).

Previous posts with related themes:
Crossover Dreams: Borderline Cinema (12/30/06)
Narrative Structure is for Wussies: An Appreciation of Jim Jarmusch (9/15/07)

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