(director/writer: Tom McCarthy; cinematographer: Oliver Bokelberg; editor: Tom McArdle; music: Jan A. P. Kaczmarek; cast: Richard Jenkins (Walter Vale), Haaz Sleiman (Tarek), Danai Gurira (Zainab), Hiam Abbass (Mouna), Tzahi Moskovitz (Zev), Amir Arison (Shah), Michael Cumpsty (Charles); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Mary Jane Skalski/Michael London; Overture Films; 2007)
“The elderly rich white dude that Richard Jenkins plays has such an epiphany that by the third act he turns into such a saintly and pious figure that I almost want to regurgitate that shawarma I once ate.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A liberal intelligentsia political orientated film that unintentionally shows why so often liberals are not liked by a lot of common folks because they are so elitist and self-righteous. It’s a film that can’t seem to understand how those in power, for the most part, don’t seriously listen to liberals in the post-9/11 America. Actor-turned-filmmaker Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent”) offers a whimsical and simplistic life lesson that slaps itself on the back for being so understanding about a shameful immigration policy it believes shouldn’t be either black or white, but instead suggests incredibly naïve reasons why it believes the laws shouldn’t be obeyed. This manipulative, preachy, liberal guilt-trip light comedy/drama over the plight of illegal immigrants uses a best case scenario of illegals and tells its forced story through the eyes of smug 62-year-old burned-out lonesome widowed economics professor at Connecticut College, Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins). After Walter meets through peculiar circumstances people of color from Third World countries, he suddenly has a change of heart about his drab existence and ignorance of the way the system works as he befriends an illegal Muslim immigrant couple, learns to bang on an African drum and through them finds again a passion for life. If it weren’t for the perfect casting, whose superb natural performances beautifully evade the more serious pitfalls of such a bogus cutesy story and even give the film a lyrical feel, this small film would have been a Katrina sized travesty.
The downbeat Walter is first viewed in his stately suburban Connecticut home taking piano lessons, an instrument his late wife played so well, and after the lesson insulting his elderly tutor when she points out the obvious that he has no talent. To reinforce that he’s no great guy, we see him turn rigidly dictatorial on a hapless student who turned in a late term paper for personal reasons. Walter’s department chairman then forces him to attend a conference at NYU on the “economic growth in developing nations” and give a talk on the book he co-authored with a much younger female colleague. The disillusioned with life professor is shocked to discover living in his modest Manhattan co-op a couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian jazz musician, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), his Senegalese girlfriend who hawks her handmade jewelry at a Soho flea market. It’s soon determined that they were taken in by a real-estate scam artist and apologetically depart, but Walter is affected by them and does the decent thing and calls them back to stay with him until they can get settled in another place. Evidently Tarek is a talented drummer and teaches the eager-beaver Walter how to play his African drum, and lets him catch his performance in a city jazz club and play with him in an impromptu jam session at Central Park. Things take a bad turn however after a couple of days when the amiable and outgoing Tarek is unfairly arrested for going through a subway turnstile that got stuck, and was sent to a detention center in Queens and it’s discovered he’s an illegal. Since Zainab, also an illegal, cannot even visit Tarek at the immigration detention center, as she would risk being arrested herself, Walter intervenes with daily visits and hires a lawyer who deals with immigration cases. But the out of touch Walter finds the system is mired in a cold bureaucracy and treats him rudely, which comes as another shock to this so-called educated man and writer of three or four books. Soon Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass, Israeli Arab actress), also an illegal, arrives from her Michigan home and the two diffident strangers try to help Tarek and make an impossible to believe love connection believable.
The elderly rich white dude that Richard Jenkins plays has such an epiphany that by the third act he turns into such a saintly and pious figure that I almost want to regurgitate that shawarma I once ate (Or was it just a falafel?). It’s the kind of well-intentioned film that wants you to believe the whole illegal issue is really about Walter, who is viewed as the film’s visitor despite his life of privilege, and his coming out of his funk to become a driven man for the cause and his dropping out for awhile to play the drum at a NYC subway station bodes well for the future of mankind—once awakened he could be the Pied Piper everyone is looking for to clean up the world’s mess.
REVIEWED ON 5/17/2008 GRADE: C+