Though he's no George Clooney, Richard Jenkins has been in enough movies to be vaguely recognizable to just about everyone who watches television or movies of almost any kind. Perhaps best known as the deceased dad on "Six Feet Under," in "The Visitor" he plays Walter Vale, an empty shell of a man drifting toward retirement from his post as a college economics professor.
Jenkins has been in movies before, lots of them, but always in the background: a psychiatrist in "There's Something About Mary"; a judge in "Stealing Harvard"; FBI director in last year's "The Kingdom." He's always turning up whenever an authority figure is needed. In that respect Walter, a stern but absent instructor, is very much a Richard Jenkins man. But this is not a normal movie for the actor. This character could be someone's dad in another more mainstream film, but here he seems to have escaped, briefly, into a story of his own.
The story's emotional centerpiece arrives early. Walter, a widower moping alone at his suburban home in Connecticut, attends a conference in Manhattan and finds two people living in his city apartment. Writer and director Tom McCarthy handles the scene, like the rest of the movie, with the intention to throw us off balance. When Walter unwittingly walks in on Zainab (Danai Gurira) in the bath, his surprise and fear can't overcome his politeness. Zainab's equally frightened boyfriend, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), jumps out of the darkness making threats, and Walter is all apologies, trying to defuse the situation even though he's the one on the surface principally wronged. It's all a misunderstanding, however: Zainab and Tarek haven't broken in; they've been tricked into renting the apartment by a friend who claimed to manage it.
The situation is doubly loaded. Zainab and Tarek aren't just interlopers; they're foreigners -- and in the especially suspicious post-9/11 way. They're Muslim, recent arrivals who've just been found living in an illegal manner. At first too taken aback to say much when the couple packs up and leaves, Walter eventually invites them back to stay for a few nights until they can find a place of their own. It's difficult to say why, but the movie has dropped clues. One is Walter's occasional glances at Tarek's drums. We saw him fumbling over piano lessons at the beginning of the movie, and like a lot of things about Walter, this yearning is kept simmering under an otherwise silent exterior.
You don't have to have seen the previews or even that many movies to guess that Walter eventually befriends the two and learns to play the drums. But McCarthy paces the material with enough dexterity to build suspense anyway. Walter, at first half-conscious of his guests, gradually gets to know them and even more gradually takes up the drums. Walter's decision to get in touch with his inner rhythm takes long enough, in fact, that you secretly start to yearn for it, and it's a relief, not just a given, when it happens.
And yet perhaps no movie, especially one with as un-George Clooney-worthy of a main character as Walter, can entirely keep the demands of Hollywood at bay. Armed with two sympathetic immigrants of Arab decent, McCarthy can't resist tossing some current-events-flavored conflict into his melting pot. In a diatribe against the U.S. government's treatment of illegal aliens after 9/11, Tarek is arrested, and much of the rest of the movie revolves around the effort to save him from deportation.
This element breaks in shortly after Walter works up the nerve to join a drum circle in the park, and it's a telling coincidence. The scene is a high point of many fine moments detailing Walter's awakening, which is interrupted, if not for the character, then for the audience. Walter splits time between visiting Tarek at the detention center and giving reports to Tarek's mother and fiancee. But no matter what comes of it all, we never get back to what makes the film work as something outside the norm. As "The Visitor" turns to the conventional, it loses interest in Walter's transformation, and he becomes somewhat of a supporting character. It wouldn't help the movie, but one wonders if Jenkins was aware of the irony. (PG-13) 108 min. S