In pop culture, few sights come off more comically pathetic than a middle-aged white guy in a suit trying to get down with African-inspired rhythms. (Think Michael Scott of “The Office” telling his diary, “I feel very irie today,” or Warren Beatty rapping in Bulworth.) Walter Vale, the 60-ish protagonist of writer-director Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor, isn’t quite an exception. Played by Richard Jenkins — best known as the dead dad on “Six Feet Under” — Walter is a college professor who looks and acts like an unfunny Bob Newhart. He’s the epitome of inflexible, inexpressive Midwestern rectitude — and he’s depressed, to boot. When he wedges an African drum between his knees and starts slapping it, he doesn’t loosen up — on the contrary, he purses his lips, concentrating on getting it right.
Throughout the movie, the sight of besuited Walter on his drum never stops being a bit ridiculous. But pathetic? No way. Part of what’s special about The Visitor, McCarthy’s first movie since festival favorite The Station Agent, is that it takes a clichéd scenario and populates it with characters you care about. We know Walter isn’t just trying to be cool and youthful by pounding on the drums. And by the end, he sounds pretty damn good.
When we first meet Walter at his home in suburban Connecticut, he’s taking beginning piano lessons from a teacher whose pupils tend to be about 50 years his junior. When he gets sick of her patronizing tactics and dismisses her, the ensuing conversation is so sad and squirm-inducing, it could have been scripted by Alexander Payne. Walter, who smiles about twice in the entire movie, seems to have that effect on people. Only later do we discover that he’s lost his wife — a concert pianist — and sees music as a way to stay connected to her.
But things change when Walter drives to Manhattan for a globalism conference and drops in on his long-abandoned pied-à-terre. He finds fresh flowers on the table and a young Senegalese woman in his bathtub. Zainab (Danai Gurira) and her Syrian boyfriend Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) rented the apartment from a shyster. Both residing in the U.S. illegally, the pair doesn’t want any trouble. Out of charity, Walter allows them to share his place for a few days, and they proceed to transform his life.
The illegal-immigrants-in-my-pad scenario sounds like the setup for a bad comedy, or an even worse heart-warming “message” film in which the cute cross-cultural couple teaches the uptight white guy to enjoy life. What McCarthy gives the audience is something rougher but more rewarding. True, the genial, easygoing Tarek, who drums professionally, charms Walter and teaches him to play the skins. But when an incident at a subway turnstyle reveals Tarek’s immigration status and lands him in prison, Walter finds himself in the difficult position of consoling Zainab, who’s as stiff and dignified as he is. He also has to confront the quiet despair of Tarek’s regal mother (Hiam Abbass), who isn’t prepared to let her son disappear into a Kafka-esque post-9/11 detention system — the way her journalist husband vanished into a Syrian prison.
McCarthy’s style is so low-key and naturalistic that The Visitor doesn’t give us the conventional satisfactions of watching a plot unfold. It doesn’t build to a climax so much as stumble on an occasional revelation. Unlike some other recent movies about depressed professors — The Savages and Smart People — it isn’t leavened by quirky humor. Finally, all three immigrants’ characters are more sketched than fleshed out, though the actors give them strong presences.
Ultimately, The Visitor is a character study of one deeply unhappy, isolated man who learns to care about people — and, in the process, to see “global culture” as more than an abstraction. As such, though, it’s a great movie. Jenkins, who’s played stuffed-shirt supporting roles in dozens of films, shows us what’s behind the façade this time. By the end, Walter has discarded his stoicism for something a lot more powerful: making music. And no one would dare laugh.