To be small and to stay small. So decides the protagonist of Robert Walser’s 1909 novel Jakob von Gunten, a student at a butler-training institute, and there’s a part of me that wishes actor Richard Jenkins would stay small forever. He’s one of those actors whose name you might not know but whenever he appears in a movie you say out loud, “All right! It’s that guy.” He’s the dead father in “Six Feet Under,” the wound-too-tight CIA agent in Ben Stiller’s Flirting With Disaster, and, though familiar to millions, so wonderfully not a household name.
While growing steadily in visibility, Jenkins is no more a movie star than he was when Flirting with Disaster came out over 10 years ago, almost a cult presence, his characters starting often quite similar: wary, aloof, inscrutable. What I mean by being small and staying small is part of me wishes Jenkins would stay small-time forever, the way you might wish a puppy to stay a puppy forever, picking the same supporting and ensemble parts. By all rights he should grow and grow, get bigger parts in bigger movies and bigger paychecks, but it’s hard to see a favorite actor or—and this is an important distinction—an actor playing a beloved character risking the profile he’s carefully built up in smaller movies by appearing in, say, a big summer blockbuster. Steve Buscemi, for example—not even in Airheads, but in that stupid airplane movie with Nicolas Cage. Or Peter Stormare, awesome as Buscemi’s smarter crime partner in Fargo, horrible in pretty much everything since.
Presumptuous, of course, to profess to know what’s best for an actor and his career. But I was actually nervous before going to see The Visitor about seeing Jenkins in a rare lead role, even in a modest indie picture. Would it dispel his mystique? Would a weak script or botched chemistry lay him low despite his best efforts? Would he overact?
I’m happy to report that the answer to all these questions is no. For better or worse, I got exactly what I wanted: the same old Richard Jenkins, no frills or flash, no breathtaking sellout moves. It’s almost like he chose a script that wouldn’t force him into any new acting territory. The Visitor is a small, safe movie that doesn’t demand much of him, doesn’t challenge him particularly, and basically lets him act in default mode. This is not meant to disparage; the movie is actually quite wonderful.
Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a burned-out economics professor who has only been pretending to stay busy for the last several years. He only teaches one class, ostensibly to devote more time to the book he’s writing. In a telling bit of burned-out-academic typeage, we see him updating his syllabus—which at the end of the semester he still hasn’t handed out yet—with a single spot of liquid paper to make 2006 into 2007. He’s drifting, but the movie isn’t exactly front-loaded with cues and clues as to what set him adrift. Pushing 60, and apparently without any talent for music, he’s begun taking painful piano lessons. Otherwise we know little about him; we see photographs that suggest he’s not a lifelong bachelor, but tantalizingly out of focus in the background.
Despite his strong objections and weak excuses, Walter’s department head insists he go to New York to read a paper at a seminar on Third World economic development. When he arrives at his lodgings, we learn two things in reverse order: He owns the lodgings, and unbeknownst to him an illegal-immigrant couple has been living in them for some time. It’s not exactly their fault: Walter hasn’t been in the apartment for 25 years, and they rented it through an unscrupulous Russian. Once the misunderstanding is cleared up, Walter lets the couple—a Syrian drummer (Haaz Sleiman) and a Senegalese jewelry-maker (Danai Gurira)—stay until they can get something else sorted out.
Best not to reveal too much that happens after that—something I wish had occurred to the film editor who signed off on the preview that ran in front of The Counterfeiters the week before. My only complaint about The Visitor is that, having already seen the movie in condensed form, I already knew everything: stodgy guy has life-changing encounter, learns to loosen up and reach out. This did allay my fretting a bit, though: It’s always fun to watch Jenkins loosen up, never more so than in Flirting with Disaster. If you haven’t seen it, well, that’s another pleasant surprise you’ve got coming.