Often enough, it's easy to imagine one actor taking the place of another in a role with no appreciable loss of a movie's overall integrity. Not so The Visitor, an It's-a-Small-World fairy-tale torqued into an anguished drama that agitates for more humane American immigration procedures. This audaciously issues-loaded indie drama works, improbably and entirely, on account of the marvelous, often familiar-looking, rarely starring character actor Richard Jenkins and his perfect performance as a stodgy, widowed economics professor from Connecticut named Walter Vale. Jenkins has played a dead undertaker dad in Six Feet Under and a shrink in There's Something About Mary, but he's never had his moment until now. And he takes it with such affecting modesty and commitment that he turns a tall tale into a heartfelt ballad.
In this ambitiously fanciful weaving of romantic notions and citizen outrage from writer-director Tom McCarthy (a ballsy sophomore filmmaking project after his prizewinning droll 2003 debut, The Station Agent), Walter travels to Manhattan for an academic conference, arrives at his little-used New York apartment, and discovers that the flat is being used by Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian musician, and Zainab, Tarek's Senegalese girlfriend (Danai Gurira). Long story short, rather than report the intruders (they're the innocent victims of a rental scam), the professor befriends the drummer. And all would be cheery and melting-potty if the musician weren't stopped by cops in a subway station, arrested as an illegal immigrant, and held for deportation.
The harsh inequities and Kafka-country miseries of secretive U.S. immigration procedures in a post-9/11 state of anxiety and suspicion shift The Visitor from dream to nightmare, a maze of helplessness only slightly sweetened by the unannounced arrival from Detroit of Tarek's worried mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass); while waiting for news of her son, Mouna also perches temporarily in Walter's dimly lit apartment. And there she works, pro bono, for her host's spiritual, sexual, and political reawakening. (If anyone can warm the frozen-hearted, it's the charismatic Abbass from Munich and Satin Rouge.) It's the damnedest thing, really: Innocent Tarek is seriously screwed and Mouna is seriously distraught. Yet the fates of both visitors attractive ambassadors from a ''scary'' part of the world are filtered through the awakening of an uptight, aging white guy with limited means of self-expression.
Oh, but Jenkins has so many eloquent ways of conveying constriction and the shock of a man aroused from the slow sleep he had accepted as a good-enough life. Wisely, McCarthy paces his movie around his star an artist who inhabits, rather than visits, the characters he plays. B+