Richard Jenkins is the ideal leading man for a Thomas McCarthy movie. Five seasons as the ghostly Nathaniel Fisher on Six Feet Under honed Jenkins’ talent for playing the charismatic observer – the solitary, disconnected figure who, whether voluntarily or not, has withdrawn from the world as we know it.
Writer/director McCarthy clearly loves this sort of character, but Jenkins’ turn as an uptight economics professor in The Visitor lacks the sense of revelation that Peter Dinklage wrought from McCarthy’s debut, The Station Agent. While both movies share a surface similarity, depicting an alienated protagonist drawn back into society by persistent new friends, the gulf between the films is that between a fully fleshed-out personality study and a simple issue picture. Imagine The Station Agent streamlined into an unabashed plea for tolerance of little people, and you’ll have an idea of what’s going on (and, more to the point, what isn’t).
Jenkins’ Walter Vale is an emotionally constipated Connecticut widower whose academic duties take him to NYU for a conference – and straight into an unexpected encounter with an immigrant couple who have been suckered into renting his New York apartment (which he, obviously, never checks in on). Taking pity on the couple, Walter allows them to stay, and is soon learning the finer points of djembe drumming from the Syrian husband, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), as well as picking up a little about handcrafted jewelry from the Senegalese wife, Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira). Though Jenkins interprets this rejuvenating cultural exchange splendidly, its entire point is to let Eurocentric audiences laugh at their own lack of soul – we have to borrow our juju, see, and we know it – then reassure them that, should a true moral challenge ever come knocking, they would find the strength to Do the Right Thing.
Said opportunity arrives when Richard’s new pals run afoul of an immigration system that’s grown cruel and arbitrary after Sept. 11. Jenkins nails his character’s resultant evolution from a serene spectator into a hot-blooded crusader defying a heartless apparatus. Yet even after this shift, the movie has no real conflict, pitting the saintly couple and their now-righteous benefactor (and, eventually, Tarek’s equally benign mother) against a racist bureaucracy that remains largely faceless. That may be true to life, but it’s also lousy drama. Instead of engaging us with an unsparing portrayal of how adversity can expose the cracks in an ad hoc friendship, McCarthy keeps his two-dimensional heroes in lockstep, standing firm before a backdrop of too-obvious icons like the Statue of Liberty, Old Glory and (say it ain’t so, Tom) the former Twin Towers.
McCarthy has an undeniable way with actors, and it sustains our interest in this overt Good Samaritan tale. Such stories certainly have a place on the screen; see Majid Majidi’s moving Baran (2001) for an example. The trick is to let the personalities involved define the reformist agenda and not the other way around. McCarthy wants to show a set of outwardly diverse characters acting in the world, but with The Station Agent, he appeared to have already learned that a fully rendered character is a world unto himself.