The Visitor

This is one I really, really wanted to like. That already tilted the scales, didn't it? This screenplay was written by Thomas McCarthy (who also wrote and directed the terrific "The Station Agent") specifically for Richard Jenkins ("Snow Falling on Cedars," "North Country," and the hilarious FBI agent in "Flirting With Disaster"), who is known primarily as a character actor. Not only was 61-year-old Jenkins flattered, he is absolutely flawless in this, his first leading role!

Jenkins plays a widower who halfheartedly teaches college in Connecticut; his college course has been unchanged for twenty years, he simply changes the date on his syllabus each term; he claims he is writing a book and uses that as his alibi to drift through his life, unengaged, bored and sinking.

He owns a two-bedroom condo in New York City but rarely uses it. When he is scheduled for a symposium that he can't dodge, he reluctantly goes to the city and discovers that his place has been illegally sublet in his absence and an immigrant couple is living there. The couple is extremely apologetic and quickly packs to leave. As they stand on the street corner trying to figure out what to do, he discovers that they overlooked a picture on the mantel so he goes down to the street to give it to them. When he sees their quandary, he invites them to stay until they find an alternative.

Bit by bit, this stifled fellow comes alive. He is inveigled by the man into drumming, of all things (!), and finds it deeply satisfying. (He is a frustrated musician who has started piano lessons numerous times, but to no avail.) The plot doesn't really kick in until the young man is arrested over a misunderstanding in the subway. It turns out that the couple is in the United States illegally.

This is an involving, often humorous, well-balanced look at the changes wrought by 9/11 in this country, and consequently, in the world. Jenkins has certainly proven the wisdom of scriptwriter McCarthy by living up to his expectations and giving us a character we won't soon forget. Remember, I always want someone to root for!