Aliens in America
Richard Jenkins is one of those actors you’ve probably seen several times without his name sticking in your memory.
He’s 61, but his film career has taken off only in the last 15 years or so. If you can’t quite place his pockmarked face and soothing baritone voice, that’s because he imposes his unremarkability on his roles, whether he’s playing an iron miner (North Country) or the director of the FBI (The Kingdom). He’s at his best when he’s being funny, as the ATF agent who’s accidentally dosed with acid and runs through the desert in his underwear in Flirting With Disaster or the absentee psychiatrist in There’s Something About Mary who drops back in on his session to tell Ben Stiller about gay men using highway rest areas for anonymous sex. Such antics are always unexpected, emanating from his unassuming façade, and his unflappable reserve frequently serves as a tonic in a frantic comedy.
Character actors of his long service deserve a turn in the spotlight, and Jenkins gets his in the honorable if formulaic indie drama The Visitor. He plays Walter Vale, an economics professor who lives in Connecticut and has been going through the motions ever since his wife’s death. He also keeps a rarely used apartment in Manhattan, but he’s forced to stay there when presenting an indisposed colleague’s paper at a conference in the city. Upon his return to the rooms, he very nearly gets the crap beaten out of him by the young Muslim couple already living there because they’ve been conned into illegally subletting the place. Rather than throw them out on the street, Walter lets them stay there a few days and forges a life-changing friendship with the Syrian street musician Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira).
This is the second movie written and directed by longtime actor Tom McCarthy, who can currently be seen as Tina Fey’s freaked-out date in Baby Mama. He debuted as a writer-director five years ago with his drama The Station Agent, and like that earlier movie, this one is about an emotionally closed-off man learning to connect with the world. Also similar is McCarthy’s attention to microscopic details of existence. His portrayal of Walter’s blossoming friendship with Tarek – who teaches the professor to play drums in Washington Square Park – is the best thing here.
Unfortunately, The Visitor also shares The Station Agent’s failure to find a convincing ending. We’re not surprised when Tarek falls foul of the federal government, even though he’s clearly no terrorist – that’s primarily what Arab characters are allowed to be in movies these days, either terrorists or innocents who are mistaken for such. It’s hard to get too worked up over what happens to Tarek, especially since it turns out he and Zainab are in the country illegally. The movie is gentle about it, but it still has a canned little lesson of tolerance for all its characters – Tarek’s mother (Hiam Abbass) flies in from Damascus and is initially shocked that her son lives with an African woman. (“She’s so black!”) The movie fizzles just as it’s trying to bring the fireworks, but that doesn’t negate McCarthy’s strengths at small-scale drama. This filmmaker should stick with that in the future.
Starring Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman. Written and directed by Tom McCarthy. Rated PG-13.