I remember having college professors like Walter Vale, the main character in Tom McCarthy´s The Visitor, played by an Oscar-nominated Richard Jenkins. Emotionless, monotone, disinterested in their work after teaching the same class year after year; as they would drone on in another endless lecture, you might wonder what their life was like outside the classroom, or if they even had one.
McCarthy´s film delves into the life of someone like this, and uses some outside forces to augment it. It´s some years after Walter Vale´s wife has passed away; he teaches a single class at a Connecticut university, using the rest of his time to work on his book. “What´s your book about?” people ask him, a question he isn´t entirely comfortable answering. He couldn´t be less interested in students; upon receiving a late paper, he rejects it outright, without caring to hear the “personal issues” that delayed it.
A seminar in NYC forces an inconvenient trip. When Walter gets to his New York apartment, he finds a naked woman in his bathtub, and an angry boyfriend demanding answers – they´ve rented the apartment from a man named Ivan, not realizing it actually belongs to someone else. Things are cleared up, and Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) are quick to leave; you get the feeling they´ve been through something like this before.
Walter, I think, gets that feeling too. He watches Tarek and Zainab struggle with their bags out on the street, then goes out to ask them if they have a place to stay, and invite them to stay with him until they get one. Over the next few days, they bond – Zainab, from Senegal, keeps her distance, but Tarek, from Syria, tries to strike up a friendship with Walter. He plays the African drum, and after noticing Walter´s interest, begins to give him lessons.
Unfortunately, Zainab and Tarek are illegal immigrants. Tarek is detained, and scheduled for deportation. Walter hires a lawyer, but, well, what else can he do? Tarek´s mother comes to New York after not hearing from her son for a few days, and Walter tries to help her through the situation.
The Visitor is a delicate little film that carefully sidesteps the usual clichés. Most of the real action seems to occur off screen, while what occurs onscreen is a lot of flavor. Everything has to come together for a film like this to work, and it does – Jenkins and the rest of the cast is excellent, and McCarthy really takes care of his characters, both as screenwriter and director. These are people we slowly come to care a lot about.
There are a lot of good things about The Visitor, but one of the best may be the emergence of Jenkins, an instantly recognizable character actor who has been finally given his due here. Director McCarthy, a character actor himself (love his brief work on The Wire) has scored his second real winner, following 2003’s The Station Agent.
Most of the reviews for Mike Leigh´s Happy-Go-Lucky seem to claim that the film is as lightweight as the title would indicate. Strange then, that I found it uncomfortably subversive, even disturbing – not that that´s a bad thing, though I´m not so sure it was Leigh´s intention, either. The director, famed for his UK working-class dramas like Naked and Vera Drake, has gone out of his way to make a lighter comedy, but he hasn´t completely shook the bleak nature of his past films.
It all starts with Poppy, an irrepressible young woman with the titular outlook on life, forever smiling and continually beaming with joy. In a Hollywood remake, expect to see Cameron Diaz or Anna Faris in the role. But here, Poppy is quite marvelously played by Sally Hawkins, who comes as close as possible to bringing a character like this to life; Hawkins deserves the heaps of praise she´s received for the role that resulted in an Oscar nomination.
Poppy doesn´t use happiness as a cover or defense mechanism; no, she´s just really, really happy and hopeful and pleasant, almost to the point of derangement. The proper comparison, I think, would be to The Simpsons’ Ned Flanders, minus the religious aspect. With a character like this, there´s a thin line between a lovable bundle of joy and a mental patient, and it´s a line Happy-Go-Lucky frequently dances around. I only fault Leigh for not exploring the character further; the film is character study, but he´s already made his mind up about Poppy, elevating her to exalted status, recommending we all be more like her. He makes the mistake of assuming viewers will see her in a similar light (and to be fair, most critics have). I´m sorry, but she just seems too damn crazy to me.
In typical Leigh fashion, there isn´t much of a plot here – events seem to unfold naturally as we experience a few days or weeks in the life of Poppy: her days as a teacher with young students, her weekends with her friends at clubs, flamenco lessons, driving lessons, a trip to the doctor or to visit her younger sister. Throughout, Poppy is wide-eyed and enigmatic, with a “gosh!” when her bike is stolen or a “gee, golly!” when the chiropractor snaps her back into place. I´ve never met anyone like this, nor would I want to.
If Poppy is the anti-Taxi Driver, then she´s equally matched by her driving instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan), Happy-Go-Lucky´s version of Travis Bickle. Intense and angry, he´s the very definition of road rage: someone who shouldn´t be allowed to get in a vehicle, much less teach others how to drive. Poppy and Scott are two clashing forces that form an unlikely heart to the film. Marsan is terrific, and I mostly sided with him in the film´s climatic scene, even though the film went in the opposite direction.
While I seem to be in the minority, I found this lead character downright unappealing and borderline psychotic, and Leigh´s treatment of her concerning.
In truth, I didn´t really care for Happy-Go-Lucky, but to dismiss it outright would be a mistake. It´s an extremely interesting picture, especially among the Leigh oeuvre, sure to spark debate and at least some level of admiration, particularly for the performances of Hawkins and Marsan. Recommended with reservations.
And: Clint Eastwood’s excellent Gran Torino doesn’t officially open till April 16, but it’s screening in advance this week at various Palace Cinemas (Slovanský dům and Nový Smíchov in Prague, Olympia in Modřice, and Velký Špalíček in Brno).