Monday, March 23, 2009

The Visitor

The Visitor is a 2008 American drama film written and directed by Thomas McCarthy. The screenplay focuses on a lonely man in late middle age whose life changes when he is forced to face issues relating to identity, immigration, and cross-cultural communication in post-9/11 New York City.

Walter Vale is a widowed Connecticut College economics professor who lives a fairly solitary existence. He fills his hours by taking piano lessons with Karen in an effort to emulate his late wife, a classical concert pianist, and works on a new book, although his efforts at both are not producing encouraging results. When he is asked to present a paper at an academic conference at New York University, he hesitates to comply, given he is only the nominal co-author and never even read it. Charles, his department head, persists, and Walter is forced to attend.

When he arrives at the apartment he maintains in Manhattan, he is startled to discover a young unmarried couple living there, having rented it from a swindler who claimed it was his. They are Tarek, a Syrian djembe player, and Zainab, a Senegalese designer of ethnic jewelry, and both are illegal immigrants. Although they have no place to go, they hastily pack and leave, but Walter follows them and persuades them to return. Over the next few days, a friendship slowly develops. Tarek teaches Walter to play the drum, and the two men join a group of others at an impromptu drum circle in Central Park.

En route home, Tarek is mistakenly charged with subway turnstile jumping, arrested for failing to pay his fare, and taken to a detention center for illegal immigrants in Queens. In order to prevent Tarek's deportation from the United States, Walter hires an immigration lawyer. Feeling uncomfortable about remaining in the apartment with Walter, Zainab moves out to live with relatives in The Bronx.

Tarek's mother Mouna unexpectedly arrives from her home in Michigan when she is unable to contact her son. Also in the States illegally, she accepts Walter's offer to stay in the apartment, and the two develop a friendship. Walter confesses his life is unfullfilling; he dislikes the single course he has taught for twenty years, and the book he allegedly is writing is nowhere near completion. She reveals her journalist husband died following a lengthy politically-motivated imprisonment in Syria, and she is concerned about her son's future prospects if he is deported. The two begin to share a simple domestic existence, with Mouna preparing meals and Walter treating her to The Phantom of the Opera when she mentions her love for the original cast recording Tarek sent her as a gift.

Without warning, Tarek is summarily deported to Syria, and Mouna decides to follow him. Alone once again, Walter plays his drum on a subway platform, as Tarek once told him he himself would like to do some time.

I just love it when a well-admired character actor gets a shot at a big-time starring role. OK, so maybe the lead role in a low-key character study like McCarthy's The Visitor is not exactly "big time" (as far as Hollywood goes, anyway) -- but if you're familiar with the name and the works of Mr. Richard Jenkins, then you'll be thrilled with what the veteran actor has to offer here. (You might not know the name, but you should definitely remember Richard Jenkins from movies like Flirting with Disaster, The Kingdom, The Witches of Eastwick, and a bunch of Coen and Farrelly brothers films.)

Here Jenkins plays economics professor Walter Vale, a man who is also A) a widower, B) kinda bored / boring, and C) sort of just floating through life without much in the way or happiness or misery. That all changes when the prof is required to hit New York City for a week-long economics conference. (Sounds pretty dry so far, eh?) But when Professor Vale unlocks the door to his seldom-used NYC apartment -- he gets one big surprise.

Turns out that a young couple -- a Syrian guy and a Senegalese woman -- have been living in the apartment, completely unaware that they've been duped by someone called "Ivan." After a few tense moments, the young lovers apologize to Vale, pack up their stuff, and head out into the streets. But while Walter is a slightly morose and somewhat gruff man -- he's also clearly a decent man with a good heart. Rather than have the kids on the street, he invites them back to the apartment.

Thus begins a mellow, laid-back, and entirely satisfying little "people" movie, one that finds the beauty in the small gestures of genorisity: McCarthy finds a lot of beauty in the strangest friendships, and as The Visitor moves into more political areas (Tarek gets tossed into jail for no good reason), the director is careful to let the characters take precedence over the "issues." Obviously the film has a lot to say about the Arab experience in America today, but The Visitor is much more interested in its interpersonal relationships than it is in climbing a soapbox and preaching to the choir. (Icing on the cake: In addition to Jenkins' fantastic performance, newcomer Haaz Sleiman (as Tarek) is really quite excellent.)

The result is a movie with a message, sure, but it works even better as a touching look at a lonely man who finds some warmth, friendship and affection in the most unexpected of places: His own forgotten apartment.

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