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'Visitor' a good film, but nothing new from director

The Visitor (PG-13)

Three stars out of four

Actor-turned-director Thomas McCarthy completely floored most critics and some audiences with his stunning 2003 debut "The Station Agent." In it, McCarthy profiled a lonely man who strikes up friendships with the most unlikely people he bumps into while avoiding life. "The Visitor" is a very good movie, but it does the same thing. In duplicating his own formula, McCarthy exhibits no artistic stretch. It's essentially a lateral move.

Middle-aged actor Richard Jenkins, who played the dead patriarch in the acclaimed HBO series "Six Feet Under," gets his first shot as the lead character in a film and makes the most of it. He plays Walter Vale, a blasé New England widower who has grown weary of teaching the same college course and who can't muster the requisite drive to write another book. He's also not beyond accepting a co-authorship credit on a piece of work for which he didn't contribute a single word. Walter hasn't exactly sold out or thrown in the towel. He's just coasting uncomfortably on autopilot.

Walter's mundane routine gets disrupted when a superior essentially orders him to speak at an academic gathering in New York City. For reasons never explained, Walter owns an apartment in the city he hasn't been to in years where he can stay during his visit. McCarthy also never divulges how two renters in said apartment are there without Walter's knowledge. These events aren't huge roadblocks to the overall credibility of the plot, but they do cause the viewer to question the initial logic.

The inhabitants of the apartment are Syrian male Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira) who is from Senegal. Both are illegal Muslim aliens and, realizing their limited options, politely agree to immediately vacate. Quickly developing a soft spot, Walter lets them stay for the night, which eventually leads to an extended stay.

Walter slowly overcomes his innate stiffness thanks to Tarek, who seizes the opportunity by casually tutoring his landlord in the fine art of New Age drumming. The two men quickly bond but as soon as they hit it off, Tarek is arrested for the flimsiest of reasons and could possibly be deported.

Unlike the recent "Under the Same Moon," McCarthy's movie doesn't twist the "illegal alien" point into some blithering, uninformed political manifesto, although it does get close to grandstanding toward the end. The accent is on inter-personal relationships between people from vastly different backgrounds and on that level, the movie succeeds admirably.

McCarthy also deserves points for tossing in a late arriving character (Hiam Abbass as Tarek's mother) and having her interact with Walter in the most unexpected ways. It totally flies in the face of typical convention and lends the film its most moving facet. The last scene shared by Abbass and Jenkins is heartbreakingly bittersweet.

McCarthy possesses incredible storytelling talent and more importantly, the ability to do so in an economic, understated manner. What he needs to do next is make a movie which doesn't recycle the "lonely man" theme. He has the tools and all of the promise any filmmaker could want. Let's hope he goes somewhere else next time out. (Overture)