There’s something about a widower in a movie that is so much more sad than a widow. Perhaps I say that because nobody can play the sad-sack quite like Richard Jenkin’s. It’s a thrill to see him in a leading role. It’s a role that’s going to lead him right up to that red carpet at the Oscars, if there’s any justice in the world.
He plays a college professor bored with life. He’s also phoning it in at work. We see him preparing for the next year by merely whiting-out the date from the pervious years curriculum, and using the same materials. His wife must have played piano because he stared at it, and eventually takes lessons. The frank discussion between both he and his piano teacher were gut wrenching.
On a trip to New York City for a conference, he finds a couple living in his apartment there. It turns out they’re illegal immigrants renting the place from a guy named Ian. In one of the few things I didn’t like in the movie, nobody ever addresses how to track down this Ian guy. He owes Jenkins money, and should probably do some jail time.
Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) is a talented musician from Syria. He’s a lot better at teaching a musical instrument than the piano teacher, and a bond is soon formed. His girlfriend Zainab (the gorgeous Danai Jekesa Gurira), doesn’t warm up to the American so quickly. She’s probably had reason to doubt kindness in the past.
They way they bonded was slow to develop and seemed very real. Jenkins brings a quiet sensitivity to the role that hit just the right notes. I felt Sleiman could’ve smiled a little less, but perhaps he was trying to get his girlfriend to frown less.
Writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) has acted in many films. I’m not sure if that helped shape the instincts he has as a director, but they work splendidly. There’s an edit early on when the immigrants go from being on the street with Jenkins inviting them back – to us seeing them in the house. We subtly see Jenkins spirits lifted as he becomes more interested in his new friends, and plays the drums more often. Perhaps Todd Rundgren was right about banging on the drums all day. Note to musicians out there: best not to play in your underwear if you have roommates.
There are trips to jazz clubs (which are awkward since the still reluctant girlfriend is there), and interesting visits to drum circles in Central Park (when she isn’t there).
Tarek is arrested in a subway, and we’re led to believe that because of 9/11 security is a lot tougher on immigrants. Some of the directions McCarthy takes at this point bothered me a bit. It’s hard for me to feel like security or government officials are the bad guys, when I think about what happened at 9/11. Yes, I like these illegal immigrants as people. That doesn’t mean when you’re watching a movie you have to just side with whatever protagonist you’re watching. I certainly hope you still wanted Sean Penn to be executed while watching Dead Man Walking, even though he’s scared and he’s obviously a changed person. It doesn’t take away from the fact that he killed two people, raping one of them.
That may have been a bad analogy but here’s a better example. We see Gurira selling interesting pieces of jewelry she made. If she’s an illegal immigrant, I’m guessing she doesn’t have a permit. Can we see the story of the small shop around the corner that is losing business because of her creations? A store that a woman opened using his life savings to invest in this small jewelry business, and hurting because rent on the building just went up. She loses business to people without permits selling jewelry nearby. You see my point? I’m not going to get sucked into this emotional liberal BS (and I’m a democrat). I don’t need to see the goofball symbolism of the Statue of Liberty periodically being shown for some statement the director wants to make.
Now all that being said, it didn’t take much away from the movie for me. It was still a wonderfully emotional experience. There’s one scene where I cried tears of joy. It involves Tarek’s mother coming into town and wanting to see a play. Jenkins surprises her with tickets. The way their relationship developed and where it ends is just fabulous storytelling and so realistic.
Two scenes made me cry my eyes out. One has Jenkins yelling at authorities that don’t seem to be sharing a lot of information with where they took Tarek. Another involves the ending. Seeing Jenkins pound on the drums in what must’ve been the most cathartic experience of his life.
Don’t let this small gem of a movie pass you by. I’m giving it an A-.