*The Visitor (PG-13)
Take a balding widower and professor of economics who sleepwalks through his empty, uptight-whitey life. Give him a chance encounter and friendship with an unswervingly generous, intuitively creative person of color. Then add a political awakening to the indecencies of New York's post-9/11 immigration policy, and an emotional awakening to an unexpected love interest ...
Hmmm. No, this shouldn't work at all. This should descend, swiftly and irrevocably, into a heap of all that is trite and trying too hard. Yet, somehow, The Visitor doesn't sink itself. Actually, and by design, its buoyancy is rather a spectacle to behold. The designer is writer-director Thomas McCarthy, a filmmaker who knows what great performances require, and what they're worth, and his movie powers itself with several of them.
Richard Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a man who doesn't say much, but seems most often to be saying "goodbye," as if to assert closure with every human connection in his life. Whether dismissing his piano teacher or a student who appeals for a deadline extension, Walter makes a habit of walling himself off. His professorship consists of aloofly recycling years-old syllabi and signing his name to papers that other academics write. Walter has insulated himself with his own tedium.
Cornered by a colleague into presenting one of those "co-authored" papers at a conference in New York, Walter checks back in to the apartment he's kept in Manhattan for years, only to find a couple of illegal immigrants living there. And in a few swiftly dispatched scenes, he decides to let them stay.
Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a young Syrian man, is a charmer with a beaming smile and an improvisatory air. He plays an African drum and tends to live on "Arab time." "It means late by an hour. All Arabs are late by an hour," he explains. His beautiful girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) sells handmade jewelry in the street, where the typical customer is a pinch-faced white woman who's managed to travel to South Africa without realizing that it's half a continent away from Zainab's native Senegal. This is probably why Zainab takes a little longer to warm up to Walter than Tarek, who's giving the man drum lessons before he knows it.
The three build a halting, increasingly comfortable rapport. Walter starts to loosen up, his dour solemnity giving way to real dignity just in time for Tarek to get sent to a detention center for probable deportation. Then Tarek's mother Mouna (the lovely Hiam Abbass), a widow herself, arrives unannounced at Walter's door. And suddenly he has a lot to deal with.
It's almost funny, how often The Visitor teeters toward clich, only to deliver one gently genuine moment after another. McCarthy's point is that compassion is inherently cinematic not just because it's gratifying to watch, but also because it's problematic.
In his empathetic presentation, even places seem like accomplished actors: From a freewheeling and democratic Central Park drum circle to the dully stolid Queens detention center, The Visitor gets something really right about New York. It's not just the pulse of the city, that improbable syncopation of twitch and stillness; it's the dance going on between its dislocated souls and the even more improbable ways in which they sometimes come together, then get plucked apart.