Monday, October 27, 2008


The Visitor is one goofy movie. Like the recent An American Carol, it is so drenched in its own agenda that it ceases being a movie early on. Scene after self-gratifying scene, writer/director Tom McCarthy uses the creation of NYU global economics professor Walter Vale (a poorly "veiled" attempt at symbolism if there ever was one...) to grapple with issues of white guilt. Richard Jenkins - a mild talent that people frequently misjudge as "great" simply because they recognize him from other movies - plays the depressive, widower professor going through life's motions until he finds his groove in the rhythm of the djembe drum he learns to play from a squatter unknowingly living in his apartment.

In the characters of Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), McCarthy does a disservice to real-life illegal immigrants by using these Syrian and Senegalese characters as race defined chess pieces. There is no honest attempt at understanding or empathic reach extended to the struggles of immigrants seeking asylum in a country he or she now considers home. McCarthy can only resort to silly Ellis Island set-pieces that intend to expose Walter's unappreciated sense of citizenship. On a ferry to Staten Island, Tarek's mother (Hiam Abbass) asks Walter if he's been to the Statue of Liberty. He says no, she looks surprised, he recoils in shame... ungrateful Americans!

Later, a women approaches Zainab's hand-crafted jewelry table at a street fair. After admiring her work, she buys a bracelet and asks Zainab where she's from. Zainab tells her Senegal, and the woman responds, "Oh, I was in Cape Town once!". But when the woman leaves, Zainab's neighbor leans in and snarks, "How far was your home from Cape Town?", "About 800 miles", she answers as they snicker together. Stupid Americans! (But, you know, this is just absurd to me. How believable is it that a new immigrant could turn into snotty New Yorker in just six short months. Right???)

These unbearable moments build and build, ultimately leading to The Visitor's uber-climactic moment of idiocy: After Tarek's mother unsuccessfully tries to get him out of an immigration detention center, she weeps "It's just like in Syria", referring back to the time her husband was jailed by the government for writing an article in the Damascus newspaper. Yes, being in the country illegally, ignoring asylum rejection orders, and then being deported - on American dime - back to Syria, is just like a citizen of a country being jailed for free speech. Mean Americans!

Like many well-intentioned political films that get tangled-up in rhetoric, The Visitor lacks any semblance of visual clarity or beauty that could have alleviated some of the heavy-handed pressure put on the viewer for the entire feels-like-forever 103 minutes. McCarthy's direction is dispassionate and the camera work is flat, never once attempting expressiveness in a film that hinges on the drama of humans. But that's just it, McCarthy puts the sermon in front of the drama, leaving an empty shell of a film resting in the middle of central park. Thing is, when you bang on it, it just sounds hollow.


bill r. said...

You make this film sound like something I would hate, so thank you for that. But Richard Jenkins is not a mild talent. He's a terrific actor, and, in fact, I took his work for granted for many years simply because I recognized him from so many films. It wasn't until the last few years that I realized how good he really is.

But I'll skip The Visitor. You make it sound particularly unappealing for me, personally.

Fox said...

I don't get the excitement about him. Then again, I mean mild to still be a compliment, just not one of "great actor". I like him when he does comedy, but his turn in The Visitor, to me, is rather droll and silly and drab.

The immediate Oscar buzz that follows a comedic-actor-gone-dramatic has become just another surefire of getting the Academy's attention.

Pat said...

Fox -

I'm really glad to see I'm not the only one who was underwhelmed by this. I usually love Jenkins (espcially in "Six Feet Under" and "Flirting with Disaster"), but his performance was so understated, it was downright dull. It wasn't a bad little movie, but it wasn't nearly up to the standard of the director's previous film, "The Station Agent."

Marilyn said...

I never got around to this film. You make me feel better about that.

This sounds like the experience I had yesterday at the press screening for Good. They don't come much lamer.

Fox said...

Pat -

I still think the beginning to Flirting With Disaster is one of the funniest things I've seen.

I really like that movie until it gets a too deep into the acid humor and I get a little disinterested. But mostly I think it's great. Patricia Arquette is adorable in it.


What is Good, and what happened at the screening? Was it a cringe-worthy Q & A or something?

Marilyn said...

Good is a new film starring Viggo Mortensen. It's opening on Dec. 31 in time for Oscar consideration. I was invited to a press screening (no Q&A), as it's the Closing Night film of the CIFF. If you go to, you'll see my capsule review (not allowed to do a full review yet).

elgringo said...

Gotta say...I loved this movie. It won't make the Top 10 but I did love The Visitor. Jenkins is a top talent who needs more roles as solid as Walter Vale.

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