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4 Stars Movies

The Time Has Come to Act: The Impostors

I’m not blind to its shortcomings, but The Impostors is one of my most favorite movie comfort foods. That I find it so funny and purely enjoyable is really saying something, considering its milieu is the joblessness, desperation, and looming international conflict of The Great Depression.

The pitch: a loving homage to old-school Hollywood screwball comedies, with an all-star cast of 90s New York City indie personalities. It has the feel of a filmed stage play (like Peter Bogdanovich’s Noises Off) crossed with the loosey-goosey, making-it-up-as-they-go-along feel of a Marks Brothers or Laurel & Hardy romp. The stagey production values become a virtue as the same few sets are redressed over and over to amusing effect. Finally, the entire soundstage-bound facade is unveiled during a celebratory dance number that breaks the fourth wall. The Impostors is a refreshingly affectionate pastiche, and not satiric or ironic in the least.

Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt in The Impostors

“To life… and its many deaths.”

The freewheeling farce is above all a love letter to the craft of acting. Arthur (Stanley Tucci) and Maurice (Oliver Platt) are two perpetually out-of-work actors so enamored of their chosen profession that they will not consider pursuing any other line of work even when faced with starvation. Their daily routine consists of staging acting exercises for themselves in public, duping passersby into serving as their participatory audience, like a prototype for the modern-day pranksters Improv Everywhere.

An escalating series of misadventures finally delivers them into a scenario in which their acting skills for once become useful: the opportunity to portray fabulously rich cruise ship passengers, to save the day, and of course to die magnificently heartbreaking deaths while doing so. What Arthur and Maurice yearn for, even more than to eat, is the opportunity to die in front of an audience. Not for nothing is their toast “To life… and its many deaths.”

It’s worth noting that most of the legitimate passengers are anything but; most have either lost fortunes during the Depression, are conspiring to steal new ones, or plot to wreak terrorist havoc in the name of fascism. Almost everyone’s an impostor.

Lily Taylor and Campbell Scott in The Impostors

“The danger of the chase has made you perspire. It has made me also… moist.”

Tucci’s paean to acting attracted an ensemble cast to die for, including a dream team of 1990s indie superstars including Lily Taylor, Steve Buscemi, Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, Tony Shalhoub, Alison Janney, Alfred Molina, Richard Jenkins, and Campbell Scott (who shamelessly steals and runs away with the movie with a sublimely odd character that answers the unasked question: what if Marvin the Martian were a lovestruck Nazi?). And there’s still room in the soufflé for wildcards like a pre-Lost Michael Emmerson, Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, and a cameo by a manic Woody Allen in a superfluous skit that could easily have been cut.

The Impostors apparently landed with a bit of a thud after the critical and commercial success of Tucci and Scott’s justly acclaimed Big Night (which I also love, not least for containing cinema’s all-time greatest omelette-making scene).

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4 Stars Movies

Everyone is Just Visiting in Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor

The Visitor is the excellent sophomore effort from Thomas McCarthy, writer/director of The Station Agent (2003). The disgustingly talented McCarthy is also an accomplished actor, most recently appearing as a corporate espionage agent in Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity and as a plagiarizing journalist in The Wire.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a political science professor at Connecticut College. The recent widower has regressed into a willfully lonely state, having lost his social graces and merely coasting in his responsibilities. In one small way at least, he does seem to be trying to grow a little as the movie begins. He runs through a number of piano instructors, futilely attempting to pick up the instrument at an age he is counseled to not even try. We later learn that this effort is facing backwards and grasping at the past; his late wife was a concert pianist.

Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman in The Visitor

Walter reluctantly travels to New York City to present a paper he nominally cowrote. He finds that his neglected vacant city apartment has been illegally sublet by a man named Ivan (which comes across like a clue dropped for a future conflict – who is this Ivan with a key to his place, and will he return? But the plot point is never picked back up). His unexpected tenants are a young couple barely making a living in New York City as artists: Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian djembe player, and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), a Senegalese jewelry designer. The conscientious Walter balks at throwing them out and instead befriends them. Tarek begins to teach him to play the djembe, which he takes to more immediately than he ever did the piano.

My one complaint is that the character of Tarek is too sketchily drawn. He’s an implausibly good and nice guy, without a hint of anything even remotely dark. Where are this very gregarious man’s other friends? Even the icy Zainab seems to have pals at the outdoors market where she sells her handmade jewelry.

Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbass in The Visitor

The trio’s brief period of happiness is broken when Tarek is detained over a misunderstanding that incidentally reveals he and Zainab have both overstayed their visas. As Walter tries to aid his new friends, he finds himself plunged into the black hole of illegal immigration and Homeland Security. Tarek’s overprotective mother Mouma (Hiam Abbass) arrives, and Walter becomes her ambassador as they shuttle back and forth to a detention center in Queens (a borough the movie portrays rather unflatteringly). If finding new friends and an invigorating creative outlet had not already plunged Walter back into life, a budding romance with Mouma completes his new slate.

The Visitor and The Station Agent both manage to just barely skate the razor edge of sentimental cheese. Keeping the story of Walter’s emotional rehabilitation from being too corny is the worry that Walter is maybe a bit too desperate to ingratiate himself. Mouna understandably does a doubletake when she learns how much he is sacrificing to help Tarek, even though they have all known him for only a few days. Indeed, the perpetually nervous Zainab suspected his intentions from the very beginning – his aid would seem to be too good to be true were he not a man with a desperate hole in his life. Zainab’s distrust is the defensive stance of someone who knows she could be kicked out of her new home at any moment – xenophobia dressed up as combating terrorism. It’s all the more affecting when she finally melts and opens up to Walter and Mouna.

Any one of these characters could be the titular Visitor: Tarek, Zainab, and Mouna are, in the eyes of the Department of Homeland Security, at worst potential terrorists and at best temporary labor, no matter what they may have to offer. Walter has homes in Connecticut and New York but doesn’t really live in either one.