It's That Guy From That Thing
Posted on Monday June 23, 2008, 10:16 by Damon Wise in Edinburgh International Film Festival
The Visitor, in movie biz terms, has been around the block a bit, starting in Toronto last year and snaking its way to Edinburgh via Sundance. But this is a film with a lot of stamina – and with any luck, perhaps even enough to see it reappear when the Oscar nominations are announced in 2009. It stars Richard Jenkins, a character actor you will definitely know when you see him, as a jaded, faded college professor called Walter Vale, who's coming to terms with the death of his wife and struggling with piano lessons that he's just not cut out for. In his professional life, Vale is becoming increasingly disillusioned with the world, to the extent that he's even become a bit of a fraud, recycling material and taking credit for other people's work on co-authored papers. Under duress from his boss, he is ordered to attend a seminar in New York, where he has a second home that he never goes to. Letting himself it, he finds that the flat his been illegally rented out to an Arab musician named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his African girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira), but on turfing them out, he has a change of heart and allows them to stay. After becoming obsessed with Tarek's bongo prowess, Walter warms to him and learns to play, but their friendship reaches a crossroads when the younger man is taken by immigration officials and threatened with deportation.
The Visitor was directed by Tom McCarthy, who also directed The Station Agent, and if you liked that film's dry, offbeat humour, you'll like this, even if it doesn't immediately seem like the work of the same guy (although his Imdb page describes his 'trademark' as being “low-key films about disparate people who become unusual surrogate families”, which sort of describes it). I met McCarthy yesterday, and he's currently very pleased with his film's performance in the US as it creeps its way towards something like $8 million there. It seems the White House is interested in his film too, and there are even rumours that Barack Obama has had a look, so it may have some very powerful allies that will help to raise its profile in the coming months.
Although McCarthy was a great guy, the treat of the day was meeting Jenkins himself, who's very funny and absolutely delightful company. Jenkins told me that he originally wanted to be a stand-up comedian but quit because he didn't think he was good enough. Now, I'm not so sure about that, having seen the segments he's done for Adam McKay and Will Ferrell's website www.funnyordie.com. They're called Hollywood Tales With Richard Jenkins: three clips he shot during McKay's film Step Brother (starring Ferrell and John C Reilly) involving his appearances on the films Sea Of Love, The Witches Of Eastwick and Intolerable Cruelty. You can see them here.
Jenkins is currently hyped not only about Step Brother but also the forthcoming Coen brothers movie that he's just finished, Burn After Reading. You might think that someone like Jenkins would be perfect material for the Coens, but the actor insists that it took him a long time to get on their radar, after losing out to Albert Finney on Miller's Crossing. But since The Man Who Wasn't There he's been on their radar, and all he would tell me is that in Burn After Reading he plays a man called Ted Treffon, who is described in the script as “the soulful manager of the Hard Bodies gym”. Now, I haven't been too enthused by the new Coens films after seeing the, ahem, 'red band trailer' (where did that phrase come from?), but this is one sentence just about enough to whet my appetite again. And, in other news, I just can't recommend the funnyordie pieces enough. Just don't forget to watch till the end, where Jenkins intones solemnly, “It's Hollywood. And I'm part of it...”