When successful actors turn to directing, you can often gauge how long they've been immersed in fiction by the degrees of condescension and cliché in their movies. Ethan Hawke is an unfortunate recent example. I'd say John Cassavetes is the classic one ... but then people would hunt me down and kill me.
Of course, some actors can think outside themselves behind the camera: George Clooney, Sarah Polley, and Ben Affleck (who knew?) provide recent testimony. Even Mel Gibson might qualify. Though his films reveal a sadomasochistic freak flagelutf8g himself and us for God, they still express something beyond the cumulative wisdom acquired from drama school scene study and that aerial view of society one gets from the top of the entertainment industry heap.
Tom McCarthy isn't as famous an actor, despite working steadily (on Boston Public, The Wire, and several Clooney movies) for a decade. This low profile may be an asset: while his 2003 writing-directorial debut, The Station Agent, sounded too precious, it turned out to be wonderful. McCarthy's directorial follow-up, The Visitor, isn't as successful. Still, it's an unforced, gracefully crafted, emotionally rewarding (to a point) miniature that suggests he has a reliable second career option.
Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is an Ivy League economics professor who is as dour as a spreadsheet. He fires his fifth piano teacher in a row (stage great Marian Seldes) because he's frustrated about poor progress at his chosen hobby. He's a bone-dry lecturer whose office hours are coldly unwelcoming and lives in a Connecticut house too big for anyone with such a shrunken soul. His department forces him to deliver a paper at a New York Universitysponsored conference, and thus he reenters, for the first time in years, his large Manhattan apartment.
Walter is surprised to discover Senegalese émigré Zinab (Danai Gurira) in his bathtub; her screams nearly bring Walter a beat-down from Syrian boyfriend Tarek (Haaz Sleiman). Once it's sorted out that a scam artist has rented Walter's prime piece of real estate to the couple in his absence, they set off, though they have no immediate berth.
Rousing from emotional slumber, Walter eventually invites the couple to stay. Then he starts to enjoy their company, or at least that of Tarek, a percussionist with an ingratiating personality who starts teaching him how to drum a better musical option for Walter than the piano, even if he is the stiffest white guy attempting funkiness this side of Jad Fair. Tarek invites the stuffy 60-something to his jazz club gigs and introduces him to Fela Kuti CDs. It's all good until the NYPD profiles Tarek one night and he's thrown into a windowless, characterless, Queens correctional facility, with deportation imminent.
The Visitor is beautifully acted and admirably sculpted. But in the last laps, McCarthy has Walter deliver a big speech to low-level governmental authorities, complete with an ironic fade-out on Old Glory and gives Walter a too-convenient, thwarted romantic interest.
It all leads to a routine, uplifting ending that would play better if Jenkins (of Six Feet Under and myriad supporting roles) had developed some drumming chops. This movie is a respectable follow-up to The Station Agent. But its suit-finds-groove response to globalization and deportation ultimately feels like a formula McCarthy should have already seen beyond.
Opens Fri/18 in San Francisco
See Movie Clock at sfbg.com