Everyone else got to see (and adore) Tom McCarthy's The Station Agent well before I had the chance to see the movie -- so by the time I caught it on DVD (and adored it), nobody really needed my half-year-late review of the flick. But I managed to catch a Sundance screening of Mr. McCarthy's second film -- and if it isn't quite as fresh or as strangely moving as The Station Agent, it's still a damn fine film with a good heart and some really excellent performances. Kinda like The Station Agent.
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.