Movie News & Reviews

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

Forget penicillin and pictures of naked ladies, the finest invention of the last two centuries has to be Netflix.

It’s especially great if, like me, your organizational system consists of throwing things on the floor until the only way you can get in your house is by punching a hole in the roof and junk-swimming your way toward where your bed might be.

When your Netflix queue is in similar disarray, it makes every arrival a surprise. It’s like mini-Christmas, only not all that great because all 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? No idea. But I can and have done much worse.

Richard Jenkins, a widowed professor, returns to his neglected Manhattan home to discover it’s been mistakenly rented by immigrant Haaz Sleiman and girlfriend Danai Gurira. Rather than throwing them out, Jenkins gradually befriends them — and fights for them once Sleiman is imprisoned in a detention center.

The subplot of The Visitor is one of storyland’s grossest cliches: bookish lamewad learns to enjoy life from free-spirited charisma-monster.

When this type of story is mishandled, its message is that all life’s problems can be solved by driving without seat belts and playing with your food. In reality, this leaves you without the use of your legs and with waitress spit in your cheeseburger, but as spit doesn’t win Oscars, the consequences of learning to not think are usually left out.

Writer/director Thomas McCarthy neatly avoids this by downplaying both the significance of Jenkins’ sudden interest in tribal drumming and by focusing on the personal side of Sleiman’s detention rather than the politics.

McCarthy’s control slips here and there, but he has a deep enough understanding of the way illegal immigrants get by in NYC to let the details of their lives do most of the talking. This hands-off directorial approach cuts both ways: It dodges a lot of preaching and the cheap emotional uplift that almost always accompanies stories like this, yet that comes at the expense of a strong personality behind the camera.

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 that charming way where he can call you ethnic slurs for 45 minutes and you’d still buy him a beer, but in that way where you’d call him a jerk and give him a face tattoo of your knuckles with your knuckles.

It makes his efforts to do better — and The Visitor has a scream of an ending — carry extra weight.

* Contact Ed Robertson at