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Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Richard Jenkins is one of those solid actors whose face you always recognize even if you don't know his name. "Six Feet Under" viewers will know him, as will anyone who's seen such movies as THE CORE, THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE, BURN AFTER READING, STEP BROTHERS, and many more. What's really cool is seeing one of these stalwart character actors given a juicy lead role and making the most of it, as Jenkins does here in writer-director Thomas McCarthy's emotionally-resonant 2007 film THE VISITOR.

Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a widowed college professor in Connecticut for whom life has lost all meaning. He wanders sad and zombielike through his daily responsibilities, dealing with people and situations with a kind of empty politeness and resigned tolerance. What he needs is something exotic and unexpected to jolt him back into life, right? Well, that's what he gets when he's sent to New York City on college business and discovers a young couple living in the apartment he keeps there. (It's one of those THE GOODBYE GIRL-type subletting mixups.) Being a basically decent sort, Walter allows Syrian immigrant Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his African girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) to stay until they find other accomodations.

With this set-up, we just know that Tarek and Zainab are going to breathe new life into stuffy old Walter, but the question is how unrealistic and predictably "zany" will it all get? Surprisingly, not at all. Every step of the way, THE VISITOR remains a thoughtful, introspective, compassionate character study that delights by keeping its characters real despite its sitcom potential. Tarek, we find, plays an African drum called a "Djembe" in small jazz clubs and sidewalk jam sessions, and when the instrument and the African beats eminating from it begin to fascinate Walter and draw him ever so slowly out of his shell, the process is amusingly subtle..

The turning point in the story comes when Tarek is arrested for a minor infraction and placed in detention. Walter discovers that Tarek and Zainab are illegal aliens, and, with his old life becoming less important to him by the minute, he starts to focus his attention on getting Tarek out and preventing his imminent deportation. But there's more--Tarek's mother Mouna (a very effective Hiam Abbass, MUNICH) shows up, and thus begins a wonderfully genteel romance between her and Walter that achieves remarkable depth by its very subtlety and restraint.

Since Walter is such a lifeless stiff when we first meet him, every little thing that puts a spark into his demeanor comes as a small joy. Richard Jenkins pulls it off by keeping the character under total control the whole time. His tentative efforts to learn to play the Djembe, letting down his reserve ever so gradually each time, lead to some great moments such as his taking part in a sidewalk percussion circle or simply drumming absently on the desk during a boring college conference. His relationship with Tarek is natural and unforced, with none of the usual contrived nonsense that would usually result from such an odd-couple pairing. Best of all, the romance between Walter and Mouna is so delicately handled and sweet, their final moment together brims with an emotional depth that may leave you holding back the sniffles.

Available in both full-screen and anamorphic widescreen, with Dolby 5.1 surround sound, the DVD looks and sounds fine. Extras include an interesting commentary with Jenkins and McCarthy, a brief behind-the-scenes featurette, some minor deleted stuff, a trailer, and a look at the Djembe.

"I have waited my entire professional career to be part of something like this," Richard Jenkins reveals during the featurette, and it's easy to see why. Low-key to the point of being almost no-key at first, THE VISITOR slowly draws us into its deliberate pace and rewards us for our patience by paying off in all sorts of ways. It won't bust your gut with laughter, deluge you with melodrama, or blow you through the back wall of your livingroom, but it doesn't have to.

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