Movie News & Reviews

You missed it, but 2007's 'The Visitor' busts movie cliches

Forget penicillin and pictures of naked ladies, the finest inventionof the last two centuries has to be Netflix. It's especially great if,like me, your organizational system consists of throwing things on thefloor until the only way you can get in your house is by punching ahole in the roof and junk-swimming your way toward where your bedmight be.

When your Netflix queue is in similar disarray, it makes every arrivala surprise. It's like mini-Christmas, only not all that great becauseall you get is one video based on the terrible whim of your past self,and he's usually drunk. Why did I order 2007's The Visitor? Noidea. But I can and have done much worse.

Richard Jenkins, a widowed professor, returns to his neglectedManhattan home to discover it's been mistakenly rented by immigrantHaaz Sleiman and girlfriend Danai Gurira. Rather than throwing themout, Jenkins gradually befriends them--and fights for them onceSleiman is imprisoned in a detention center.

The subplot of The Visitor is one of storyland's grossestcliches: bookish lamewad learns to enjoy life from free-spiritedcharisma-monster.

When this type of story is mishandled, its message is that all life'sproblems can be solved by driving without seatbelts and playing withyour food. In reality, this leaves you without the use of your legsand with waitress spit in your cheeseburger, but as spit doesn't winOscars, the consequences of learning to not think are usually leftout.

Writer/director Thomas McCarthy neatly avoids this by downplaying boththe significance of Jenkins' sudden interest in tribal drumming and byfocusing on the personal side of Sleiman's detention rather than thepolitics.

McCarthy's control slips here and there, but he has a deep enoughunderstanding of the way illegal immigrants get by in NYC to let thedetails of their lives do most of the talking. This hands-offdirectorial approach cuts both ways: it dodges a lot of preaching andthe cheap emotional uplift that almost always accompanies stories likethis, yet that comes at the expense of a strong personality behind thecamera.

So it's a good thing there's a strong one in front of it. Jenkins'character is genuinely standoffish and antisocial, and not in thatcharming way where he can call you ethnic slurs for 45 minutes andyou'd still buy him a beer, but in that way where you'd call him ajerk and give him a face tattoo of your knuckles with your knuckles.It makes his efforts to do better--and The Visitor's scream ofan ending--carry extra weight.