Lives can change unexpectedly
Apr 6, 2009 (Updated Apr 6, 2009)
Review by Stephen Murray
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:cast and writing
Cons:a bit slow for popcorn-movie fans
The Bottom Line: Excellent DVD bonus features push the 4.5 rating of the movie itself up.
As Nathaniel Fisher, the funeral director who died in the first episode of "Six Feet Under" but dropped in on occasion to talk to his younger son, Richard Jenkins shoulda received some guest star or supporting-actor award. He was also very good in supporting roles in Burn After Reading, Flirting with Disaster, North Country. When I saw the Oscar nominations for best actor, I wondered if Jenkins could carry a movie. Having seen and been touched by "The Visitor," the question remains. Jenkins is very good as Walter Vale, the depressed economics professor/widower going through the motions as a teacher and frustrated in his attempts to learn to play the piano.
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Aside from a large house in Connecticut, he has a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. Forced to deliver a paper he has nominally cowritten at an international development conference, he goes to the apartment where he has not gone for months and finds a black woman, Zainab (Danai Gurira), in his bath tub — to their mutual shock. Her Arab boyfriend, Tariq (Haaz Sleiman), rushes out, concerned that she has been violated. He has rented the apartment in good faith, but gathers up their stuff and leaves.
Walter, not notable for his sensitivity to others (for instance, a student who tried to turn in a paper late) takes pity on the alien couple out in the street and invites them back. Zainab remains uncomfortable around him, but Tariq radiates charm and is delighted to find Walter trying out his djemba (a West African drum). Tariq becomes Walter's mentor on the djemba. The drum and the couple of illegal aliens whose occupation of his apartment he ratifies provide Walter stimulation, bringing him back to life.
The thin-lipped, tentative Jenkins looks like the prototypical white guy who lacks rhythm, though one of the bonus features reveals that he played drums in his youth. Both Sleiman and the djemba master/teacher/consultant say that Jenkins could have taught Sleiman. So Jenkins's awkwardness, and Sleiman's warmth, patience, and assurance are, like, acting! For me the most moving scene in the movie has Tariq drumming on his heart as Walter pounds out rhythm while visiting Tariq in a Homeland Security detention center in Queens.
Things can change suddenly, and not always for the better. Tariq was arrested in the subway after paying for both Walter and himself but getting his djemba caught in the turnstile. Tariq is seems more concerned about Zainab, and his mother in Michigan, and even Walter's drumming lessons than about his dire situation, but crumbles in incarceration with lights always on, no fresh air, and no privacy.
Tariq's elegant mother Mouna (veteran Arab actress Hiam Abbass) shows up. Walter makes his adopted family his highest priority, but trying to help someone after a deportation order is like banging your head against the wall, except having less effect on the wall.
Having testified as an expert witness in a number of asylum hearings, I have been inside immigration court and watched judges deport people without a flicker of human feeling (not those for whom I was testifying except in the very strongest case of someone told by a senator of the ruling party that if he ever tried to leave he would be killed). This is a sector in which "deadline" is literal. Any failure to process any document on time overrides consideration of the likelihood of persecution or execution of an asylum seeker.
Tariq's father was imprisoned in Syria for writing something critical of the regime (the senior Assad) until he was dying. Given the sense of family responsibility there, I think that Tariq would be in danger forced back to Syria. Tariq and Mouna are specific characters with specific histories of persecution, and I don't see the movie as taking any position on whether most of those seeking asylum (or at least avoiding deportation) should be granted it, though I guess that it challenges the belief that all Arabs are fanatic terrorists or potential terrorists. This one is a very giving musician.
With outstanding support from the rest of the cast, IMHO it is Sleiman who carries the movie, even though the movie is about Walter and Walter's renaissance. Sleiman at least received an Independent Spirit Award nomination as best supporting actor. (Had he been nominated for an Oscar, he'd have had no chance, since the Academy was remedying its mistake in failing to give Heath Ledger the one he deserved for "Brokeback Mountain.")
The movie is not quite as quirky as writer-director Thomas McCarthy's "The Station Agent" (2003). Both seem to me very French in letting characters and offbeat relationships develop. Walter is not as depressed as Kirsten Scott-Thomas's character in "I've Loved You So Long," and thaws faster, but Jenkins's performance is up there with Scott-Thomas's as one of the best of 2008.
McCarthy and Jenkins provide intelligent commentary both for the film and for some deleted scenes. There is a fairly standard "we all loved each other so much and admire each other so much" featurette. The one not to be missed is the one with McCarthy, Jenkins, and Sleiman and their Ghana-born mentor talking about the djemba and learning to play it. Not surprisingly, Sleiman is humble and charming and intelligent in the bonus features as well as in the movie. Jenkins is (thank goodness for him!) more relaxed and confident than Walter, though sharing Walter's gratitude for the experience of visiting Walter's apartment in town and being accepted into an Arab family.
(Trivia: McCarthy played the reporter making up stuff, Scott Templeton, on the last season of "The Wire." Earlier he played Kevin Riley on "Boston Public." McCarthy won the best director Independent Spirit Award, having earlier won one for best first screenplay and the John Cassaveates Award for "The Station Agent." He received Writer's Guild nominations for both screenplays.
Did you know that Richard Burton was christened Richard Walter Jenkins?)
© 2009, Stephen O. Murray
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