Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bang the Drum Quickly

Perhaps the only actor to gain noteworthy Oscar buzz in the first half of '08 - hell, in the first three quarters - is veteran side player Richard Jenkins for his lead role in actor-turned-writer/director Tom McCarthy's sophomore feature, "The Visitor."

The film, about a disillusioned Connecticut professor named Walter (Jenkins) who finds vitality late in life when he befriends a Middle Eastern family in New York, is a culturally, emotionally, and artistically diverse gem. McCarthy, whose first feature, "The Station Agent," was just as unembellished and sincere, places himself on the list of gifted, consistent filmmakers to watch.

Jenkins, who concurs that he's been working toward a project like this his entire career, achieves the persona of a lost and lonely man with a yearning, heartbreaking honesty. However, I have to admit, I was somewhat underwhelmed after having been inundated with all of the hype surrounding this performance. Yes, it is carefully subtle and profoundly realistic, but this is an actor who's wowed me on numerous occasions in the past (see: "North Country," "Six Feet Under"). Here, while I appreciated him earning the spotlight he deserves, Jenkins simply gave me the type of focused acting I've come to expect from the 61-year-old, and I'm unsure if this understated, early-in-the-game turn has what it takes to face-off against what are sure to be some heavy-hitters (see: Sean Penn in "Milk," Leonardo DiCaprio in "Revolutionary Road").

More impressive, to me, were the supporting performances in "The Visitor." I don't know where McCarthy dug up Haas Sleiman (above, right) and Danai Jakesai Gurira - who play Tarek and Zainab, the couple that unknowingly moves into Walter's New York apartment in his absence - but both actors are knock-you-to-the-floor good. Hold on tight and watch Sleiman go as his character teaches Walter to play the Djimbe drum (above, again) and fights his fears from behind the glass after being jailed for illegal residency by Immigration. And try to hold back a smile when Gurira talks of a humorous past on the Long Island Ferry, or a tear when she learns of the eventual sad truth about her lover.

As if that weren't enough, even more pleasing is Hiam Abass ("Munich," "Paradise Now") as Tarek's mother, Mouna. Fragile and gorgeous, Abass should be on the short list of Supporting Actress contenders at year's end. The love that forms between her and Walter is the most naturally constructed romance I've seen this year apart from robot sweethearts Wall-E and Eve. And, on that note, despite Jenkins' overblown hype, "The Visitor" is one of the most uniformly well-acted pictures of 2008.

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