I saw The Visitor last summer in one of the few nearby cinemas that show films with no car chases. The movie was, well, okay I guess. Moving. Sweet. Wouldn’t press it on anyone. Still, when I thought the other day how the family might like a change of pace in Netflix selections — a movie made by grown-ups for grown-ups — I remembered Thomas McCarthy’s low-key tale about a grieving professor of economics who gets all tied up in the lives — and drum music — of a couple of illegals. I summonsed the red envelope. It arrived, we encouched, it spun. Credits. Lovely story. Touching.
But hard to recommend. From the minute you see the title in tiny white helvetica peeking coyly from the lower right of the black screen you begin to suspect — and when you hear the aimless solo piano notes plonking at odd intervals — well, from that moment you know what you’re in for and you must either switch at once to episodes of Frasier or prepare your mind to be… improved.
Because improvement — that other way movie makers treat their audience as children — is what’s on the table. How will you be improved? So many ways:
You will learn that Americans, no matter the race or ethnicity, are boors. The simpering white women above was so impolite as to tell Zainab the Senegalese Lady Artist that she herself had once been to Africa. The nerve! Maybe not so insensitive as clapping Zainab the Senegalese Lady Artist in chains, but, you know, it’s a slippery slope.
You will learn that Americans, especially but not exclusively white guys, are so uptight you can bounce quarters off their superegos. But — and here is where the Academy Award™ for lead actor Richard Jenkins comes in — they are teachable. Stick a djembe between a Puritan’s skinny shanks, give him a few words of instruction (“Don’t think.”) and stand back as the Florsheim shoes fly off.
You will learn, to your surprise, that the immigration authorities of the United States are too strict. Yes: too strict. Which explains why so few illegal aliens are here to play the djembes Americans won’t play.
You will learn that followers of Islam are joyful, artistic, open-hearted people in no way represented by that minority who explode. The only bang you can expect from these musical Muslims is the one they do on their drums all day.
It’s an actor’s movie, I’ll say that. The director is an actor and so are the cast members. Not the breath of a hint of a ghost of a weak performance. Even the student with the late paper. Even the elderly piano teacher. Even the guy from upstairs holding Sprinkles the Dog. Why, even Sprinkles toed the mark. The estimable Richard Jenkins, you may remember, came this close to grasping an Oscar statuette for his work in The Visitor, but the prize was snatched from his outstretched hand.
That’s okay. He’ll always have his djembe: