Tom McCarthy's simplistic treatment of complex political issues is peppered with the kind of preachy presumptions that reflect badly on well-meaning western liberals.
An actor best known as a regular on the highly regarded US television drama The Wire, Thomas McCarthy made his debut as a writer-director in 2003 with The Station Agent. A small but charming labour of love, the film explored the unlikely friendship between three emotionally damaged misfits in rural New Jersey. It was an exercise in feel-good whimsy, but it won critical plaudits for its excellent cast and universal message about the kindness of strangers.
McCarthy's second film tells a similar story, but this time on a broader and more topical global canvas. Its flawed hero is Walter Vale, a middle-aged economics professor living a life of quiet desperation on a Connecticut college campus. A lonely widower who has lost all passion for his work, Walter is nicely underplayed by Richard Jenkins, a seasoned character actor whose hangdog face will be familiar from the TV comedy drama Six Feet Under and various Coen brothers films.
But Walter's self-absorbed world view takes a sharp knock when he is grudgingly pressed into attending an academic conference in New York. Arriving at the occasional apartment he keeps in the city, he finds it has been illegally rented out to an immigrant couple, the Syrian musician Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese jewellery maker girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira). He initially sends the pair packing, but soon takes pity on them, allowing them to stay with him while they search for alternative accommodation.
As in The Station Agent, this ill-matched trio slowly develops a warm friendship, and Tarek even coaxes Walter out of his shell by teaching him to play the drums. But when the young Syrian is detained by the US immigration authorities, his new friend comes to recognise the scale of anti-Arab prejudice and paranoia in post September 11 America. The arrival of Tarek's mother, Mouna, played by the Israeli Arab actress Hiam Abbass, brings further emotional complications just as her son faces possible deportation.
In its second half, The Visitor takes a predictably sombre turn and never really recovers. Reinforced by a mournful chamber-music soundtrack and glancing references to the Iraq war, McCarthy delivers his blindingly obvious message: people from other cultures are human beings too. They laugh and love and enjoy life's pleasures, just like Americans. And they deserve to be treated fairly and humanely because - hold the front page - we are all brothers and sisters under the skin.
Such agreeable sentiments are perfectly noble, of course, but they hardly add up to a thought-provoking film. To make matters worse, McCarthy's simplistic treatment of complex political issues is peppered with the kind of preachy presumptions that reflect badly on well-meaning western liberals. He presents non-American immigrants as a sanitised and homogenous group, as if West Africa and the Middle East are neighbouring villages in some global theme park.
These unsophisticated foreigners soak up the sights of New York with childlike wonder, expressing themselves mainly through jungle-drum rhythms and folksy homemade jewellery. Their motives are saintly, their pleasures simple, their inner lives non-existent. And naturally, when they need high-minded wisdom or financial help, they defer to their paternalistic American host. In short, they are a white liberal's orientalist fantasy of exotic outsiders.
This leaden, condescending tone gradually overwhelms The Visitor and makes it a far less interesting film than it might have been. Which is a shame, because there are plenty of fine ingredients at work here. In his first lead role, Jenkins delivers a pleasingly subtle and soulful performance, making Walter sympathetic and plausible even at his most cold and cranky. Likewise Abbass, who manages to cram a lifetime of dignified disappointment into her relatively short screen time.