Professor as Student of His Life and Others’;
A professor of economics at Connecticut College and a widower, Walter plods through an existence that looks comfortable and easy enough, but also profoundly tedious. He recycles old syllabuses and lecture notes for his classes, and suffers through piano lessons in a half-hearted effort to sustain some kind of connection to his wife, who was a classical concert pianist.
Early in “The Visitor,” Tom McCarthy’s second film as writer and director (the first was “The Station Agent”), it seems inevitable that something will come along to shake Walter out of his malaise. And sure enough, when he reluctantly travels to New York to deliver a paper at a conference, Walter finds that the Manhattan apartment he keeps but rarely visits has been surreptitiously rented to Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a drummer from Syria, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), his Senegalese girlfriend, who sells handmade jewelry at flea markets. Walter’s initial dismay and irritation gives way to an instinctive flicker of compassion, and he invites the couple to stay, at least for a short while.
The curious thing about “The Visitor” is that even as it goes more or less where you think it will, it still manages to surprise you along the way. Tarek and Walter quickly become friends, though Zainab is more reserved and also clearly more suspicious of her new housemate and benefactor. Walter takes up drumming, and begins to feel his zest for life and his appreciation of New York returning after a long period of dormancy...
To summarize Mr. McCarthy’s film as I have is to acknowledge some of the risks he has taken. It is possible to imagine a version of this story — the tale of a square, middle-aged white man liberated from his uptightness by an infusion of Third World soulfulness, attached to an exposé of the cruelty of post-9/11 immigration policies — that would be obvious and sentimental, an exercise in cultural condescension and liberal masochism. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to imagine it any other way.