2008-05-16 / Entertainment/Lifestyles

'The Visitor' - Of Bongos And Borders

Review By Robert Snyder

If actors Richard Jenkins and Dennis Quaid are up against each other at next year's Oscar ceremony, it will be ironic. They both play curmudgeon college professors: Dennis in "Smart People" and Jenkins in "The Visitor."

While Quaid's Lawrence Wetherhold is a movie-star stab at quirky characterization, Jenkins melds into his role as Walter Vale effortlessly, or so it seems.

Henry Fonda once said that with good acting, the audience should not see "the wheels turning." In "Smart People," Quaid's wheels are rolling wildly. A longtime supporting actor, Jenkins makes his first major lead part appear to be one in the same as himself. His technique is virtually invisible. Quaid's acting is outward; Jenkins acts internally and, therefore, is more affecting.

A professor of economics at Connecticut College and a widower, Vale is sleepwalking through his routine life. First, we see him alone is his spacious house, firing a piano teacher. By giving up on lessons, he is cutting the last psychological tread to his deceased concert pianist wife.

He reluctantly agrees to deliver a lecture in New York City on a paper, to which he lent his name but did not really write. Arriving at his rarelyused Manhattan apartment, he is shocked to find a Senegalese woman, Zainab (Danai Gurira), in his bathtub. He is then violently confronted by her Syrian drummer boyfriend, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), who believes Walter is the intruder. Apparently, the apartment had been illegally rented to the couple. However, a spark of compassion overcomes the professor, and he allows them to stay.

That spark ignites the fires of his heart, fueled when Walter shows an unexpected interest in Tarek's drumming ability. One evening, the professor returns to discover his visitor banging on a big type of bongo and is talked into joining him on another drum. "Just hit the drum in three-three time and don't think," says Tarek.

Drumming opens up an emotional door to the psychically near-dead professor that becomes his salvation.

The new friends, Walter and Tarek, travel to Central Park to perform as bongo buddies. But on one trek, Tarek is arrested in a subway and quickly slammed in a Queens detention center as an illegal immigrant. The newlymotivated teacher hires a lawyer and battles the post 9/11 bureaucracy to prevent deportation.

Before long, Tarek's widowed mother Mouna (noted Israeli-Arab actress Hiam Abbass) shows up. Walter welcomes her to stay with him, while he fights for her son. A romance blossoms between them, culminating with dinner in the city, a Broadway show and bed.

Still the shroud of Tarek's fate hangs over the relationship. It is sealed when Walter receives an early-morning call that his deportation has occurred.

Walter rushes to the center where, in his one explosive moment, he rails at the dumbstruck security personnel. After Mouna returns to her son in Syria, Walter takes his drum to the subway, where he continues his new life as a street musician.

Written and directed by Tom "The Station Agent" McCarthy, "The Visitor" has a sad social message about the meanness of the United States immigration policy after 9/11. But, it is easy to forget about the all-encompassing devastation on that terrible day. Sympathy for a free-spirited Syrian street musician can only go so far. Without a green card, he's got to go, despite the support of Jenkins' powerfully implosive performance.

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