"The Visitor" is about the emotional rebirth of Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a closed-off, 62-year-old economics professor in suburban Connecticut. At first he seems so drably disillusioned that you wonder where he gets the energy to grade papers. Maybe he doesn't. In the first scene in his – what else? – drab office, he refuses to accept a student's tardy submission. Walter isn't mean, exactly, he's just – well, drab.
Writer-director Tom McCarthy ("The Station Agent") makes it all too obvious from the get-go that Walter is in for a total makeover. Why else would he present us with such a colorless sluggard? And, sure enough, fate intervenes to complicate – i.e. colorize – Walter's humdrum existence.
He reluctantly agrees to attend an academic conference in Manhattan and discovers that the apartment he rents there, but rarely occupies, houses two illegal immigrants: Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian musician, and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira). The victims of a real-estate scam, they are mortified and apologetic. With nowhere else to go except the streets, Walter hesitantly invites them to stay for a while.
My first response to this was that Walter must be awfully lonely to allow two complete strangers to remain in his apartment with him – in New York, no less! It was my second and third response, too. McCarthy is so intent on constructing his little fable of togetherness that he overrides the realities of big-city life.
The implausibilities continue as Tarek takes Walter to hear him play in a local jazz club. All that hot soul music gets to Walter and soon he is taking impromptu drum lessons from Tarek and frequenting an African drum circle in Central Park.
The subtext to all this is implicitly obnoxious: Pallid white guy needs swarthy exotic companion in order to feel alive again. With his boundless, almost childlike energy, Tarek represents the life force while Walter, with his safe, sane academicism, is an example of what can happen to you if you value the brain over the heart. (Walter may be disillusioned, but we never get a sense of what his illusions were.)
Is it any surprise to us that Tarek gets picked up by the police and held for deportation? Just as Walter, in order for this fable to work, must go from drab to driven, Tarek must go from free to captured. But that's not all: Tarek's mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), who has been living in Michigan, gets wind of her son's confinement and shows up on widower Walter's well-trod doorstep. And lo – she's a beauty, alluring enough to stoke Walter's already stoked fires.
The most emotionally piercing moments in the movie belong not to Walter but to Zainab, who cannot even visit Tarek at the immigration detention center for fear of being arrested herself. Zainab is prideful and ferocious but, faced with the loss of her love, she seems to collapse in on herself. Gurira is a marvelous actress who can express more in a glance than most performers can with a full monologue. Abbass, too, has a melancholic dignity that reaches out to us.
In the movie's central role, however, Jenkins is so understated that he fades into the background even when he's meant to be front and center.
Jenkins has had a busy career as a character actor – you may remember him from TV's "Six Feet Under," as well as the gay FBI agent in the movie "Flirting With Disaster" and the psychiatrist in "There's Something About Mary" – but carrying an entire movie is something else altogether. He's one of those actors who avoids doing the obvious in a scene by doing very little at all. Some may call this super subtlety. I call it underpowered.
"The Visitor" will no doubt strike some people as timely because of its subject matter. But McCarthy is so careful not to take a political stand that his film seems neutered by good intentions. In the spirit of squishy humanism, he soft-pedals a hard-hitting topic. Grade: C+
• Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.