Is there still room for tact and gentleness in movies that deal with a post-9/11 New York?
Tom McCarthy's The Visitor, hearteningly, suggests that there is, although it helps that it smuggles the issues through in the form of a character study, one that is fast becoming a mini-genre of its own: the middle-aged professional guy who has lost his mojo.
Think of Paul Giamatti in Sideways, Steve Carell in Dan in Real Life, Dennis Quaid in Smart People, Bill Murray in just about everything. To this august crew you can add Richard Jenkins, and, before you say, "who?", be assured that you'll know his face from minor roles in at least half-a-dozen Hollywood movies. If there's any justice we'll be seeing a lot more of him after this.
Jenkins plays Walter, an economics professor in suburban Connecticut who keeps to a lonely routine and does the bare minimum for his students. He's trying to learn piano, perhaps to keep up some connection with his late wife, a classical concert pianist. On being told by his tutor that, should he decide to give up lessons, she'd like to buy his piano, he begins to get the message: he's no Alfred Brendel.
Required to substitute for a colleague at an academic conference in New York, Walter rather unwillingly makes the trip and checks into his Greenwich Village pied-a-terre – where a fright awaits him. A young Syrian musician Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) have moved in, tricked into renting the place by a fly-by-night landlord. Walter politely turfs them out, and then, almost surprising himself, invites them back in until they can find other accommodation.
As in McCarthy's first film, The Station Agent, where an unexpected friendship develops between three strangers, the prof and the young couple form
a little unit. Tarek, a drummer, offers to teach his new friend the djembe, and Walter, while not so good on the piano, discovers that he might have rhythm instead. Zainab, a warier character, seems almost to resent Walter's generosity – another patronising white guy? – but even she begins to thaw, on sensing his decency. This is where Richard Jenkins's performance becomes so vital to the film. Stiff and lugubrious to begin with, he conveys the academic's social awkwardness quite brilliantly, whether in a reluctance to make eye contact, or to pay someone the small compliment of actually listening to them. One can see how Walter could easily be dislikeable, yet Jenkins finds something in this slump-shouldered loner that responds to warmth, and does it so subtly, so quietly, that you hardly notice.
The drama, when it arrives, is of a more predictable nature. Tarek is arrested by the authorities and slung into a detention centre; Walter goes to visit him, and learns just how helpless an immigrant can be once sucked into the vortex of American bureaucracy. Tarek's plight brings his mother, Mouna, to town, and the film enters a rather different phase. Played by the beautiful Palestinian actor Hiam Abbass, Mouna continues the emotional rehab on the prof that was started by Tarek, only this time there's an unignorable romantic undertow at work. She cooks him dinner, he takes her for a night out at a Lloyd Webber musical (her choice, I'm afraid), and another unlikely amity takes root. The problem here is that, though finely played by Jenkins and Abbass, it has the effect of sidelining Tarek, lost in detention hell while Zainab has, perhaps too conveniently, left Walter's flat to stay with other friends.
This contrivance might not be so bothersome were there not a nagging suspicion that McCarthy is generally a bit easy on his characters. The friendship that springs up between Walter and Tarek feels too eagerly flagged. How much more poignant, and humorous, if Walter was seen lying in his single bed at night while the sounds of the couple making love in the next room filtered through the walls. When Mouna, whose devotion to her son has been proven in her soulful watch outside the detention centre, is later introduced to Zainab, there ought surely to be a faint thrum of tension as mother sizes up girlfriend. But no, it's big smiles on both sides – no potential daughter-in-law ever had an easier welcome. McCarthy also misses a trick, one feels, in refusing to make the connection between Walter's academic expertise and his unscheduled field work. We hear, in an offhand way, that he's in New York for a conference on economic growth in developing countries, but he's given not one single line that suggests how much he understands about the global economy and the precarious status of Tarek and Zainab.
These perceived shortcomings have to be seen in context, though. McCarthy has made a character study with political implications rather than an "issue movie", though no one will come away with any cheerful feelings about the machinery of American bureaucracy. Even the boilerplate language of its officials – "sir, step away from the window" – speaks of an institutional fussiness that's deeply unappealing. The dim flame of hope kindled by The Visitor argues that there are citizens in that country who are willing to put their hospitality on the line for the sake of complete strangers, and, maybe, to discover some of their own humanity in the process.