Film Reviews: The Visitor, What Happens in Vegas

May 13, 2008 at 6:01 pm

‘The Visitor’ serves up over-the-top melodrama
(Starring Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbass and Marian Seldes. Directed by Tom McCarthy. Rated PG-13; 1:48. LEO Report Card: B-)
Deadpan humor can mask a lot of schmaltz. Indie directors Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch have well-earned reputations for disguising their melodramas as bone-dry comedies. Similarly, Thomas McCarthy, who directed “The Visitor” and “Station Agent,” takes movies that are essentially about friendship and self-actualization — movies that in another person’s hands would be unbearably cute — and presents them so dryly as to make Bob Newhart look like Jim Carrey.

Speaking of Newhart, witness the protagonist of “The Visitor”: Think of him as Bob Newhart in dire need of antidepressants. Walter (Richard Jenkins) is a balding, widowed college economics professor. He’s disconnected from his students, shows no ambition and extricates himself from any and all professional or personal interactions. His conversations are almost painfully inept, marked by long, awkward silences and ill-advised comments.

After reluctantly traveling to New York to deliver a paper, Walter realizes that the apartment he keeps there has been illegally lent out to a young immigrant couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira). He asks them to stay on temporarily while they find a new place; while there, the couple’s youthful love and passion melt away his icy exterior. Before long, he’s learning drums from Tarek and helping out at Zainab’s stall where she sells jewelry inspired by her Senegalese upbringing.

It’s when he starts to really enjoy life (in his own awkward way) that the film reaches its peak. He’s been emotionally resuscitated by his new friends, and what was initially a grim picture is now very light, although still understated.

Unfortunately, this peak is achieved within the first third or so of the movie. Thereafter, everyone is brought back down by the inevitable: An honest mistake brings in Homeland Security, never a welcome interloper in a comedy.

From here, McCarthy loses his cool. The images and symbols he introduces are as subtle as a sledgehammer to the skull. At the end of a long, anguishing scene portraying the inhumanity of the immigration system, the camera drifts toward a giant American flag and holds on it, as if to say, “Hey! You! Check out the symbolism! It’s irony. Pretty clever, huh?” Earlier, the previously soft-spoken Walter deliveres a “Network”-esque “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore” speech.

Of course, I wouldn’t say McCarthy is wrong in anything he’s saying: The walls, both literal and figurative, that the United States and Western Europe have erected only serve to make previously good people criminals. There’s no way to stop undocumented immigration — there are too many desperate people out there — so we need a more realistic, more humane way to deal with them.

The problem is that a director, who’s previously been so wonderfully subtle, has resorted to sloganeering melodrama to get his point across. For the last two-thirds of the movie, it’s as if Bob Newhart collaborated with Michael Moore. Yuck. —Alan Abbott

‘What Happens in Vegas’
should stay there
(Starring Cameron Diaz, Ashton Kutcher, Rob Corddry, Lake Bell and Dennis Farina. Directed by Tom Vaughan. Rated PG-13; 1:39. LEO Report Card: D-)

Cameron and Ashton. Those are the two names on the movie poster of “What Happens in Vegas.” Apparently, no surnames are needed.

From this you can infer that the studio marketers think the two stars are bona fide brands. Or at least that such a story can be manufactured. So if Cameron and Ashton — doesn’t it feel good to be on a first-name basis with them? — are brands, then what need do they serve for their audience?

Certainly it is not as suave purveyors of the sort of witty repartee we saw between George Clooney and Renee Zellweger in “Leatherheads.” It’s not the heartache and raunch of Jason Segel and Kristen Bell in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” It’s probably most akin to the unctuous salesmanship of Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson in “Fool’s Gold.”

Trying to will magnetic charm in the face of insipid screenplays, both couples negate their natural charisma with relentless obnoxiousness. Shrill behavior is mistaken for goofball cute. Clichés of “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” abound in so-called humor rooted in the woman complaining that the toilet seat is always up. The movie fails to mine any original jokes or even effective pratfalls from its farfetched premise. What you’re left with is pretty stars embarrassing themselves, and a giant sucking sound that signifies your life passing you by.

The wind-up: Cameron’s fiancée dumps her. Ashton gets fired. They go to Vegas to forget their woes. Couple meets. Couple drinks. Drunk couple marries. Regret ensues. Ashton wins $3 million from a slot machine with Cameron’s quarter. A judge orders them to live six months together. More unintentional thriller than comedy, “What Happens in Vegas” wrings suspense from the question of whether any of the jokes will actually be funny. —Jamie Peters