Sunday, January 25, 2009

Richard Be Good

My good bud and fellow popcult traveler The Senator told me he let out such a loud whoop of triumph while riding in the car upon hearing of Richard Jenkins' Best Actor nod that he scared his uncomprehending son and fellow passasenger near to death. While I've recounted my personal remembrances of a few of Jenkins totally awe-inspiring turns when he was doing time at RI's Trinity Square Repertory Theater while squatting on many bar stools, allow me to indulge myself once more. Since Jenkins carved out a career in the movies he usually seems to be cast a some sort of officious (but quirky) suit and tie guy, yet his long residence here at Trinity proved him to be an amazingly versatile actor, a charismatic mix of Royal Dano and Arthur Kennedy.
Personally, I will never forget Jenkins for essaying three of the finest stage performances I have ever seen, way back in the early 80's, and yeah baby, I have seen a batch here, there, and New York square. Jenkins went full tilt boogie as a lean, mean, and bone-achingly desperate Teach in David Mamet's American Buffalo, and I will never forget temporarily forgetting about distancing myself (and being chilled to the bone) when he partially wrecked the junk shop as part of his antics. This, compared to the incomparable Al Pacino, who saw do Teach up twice-one at NYC's Circle In the Square and sometime later at DC's Thie Kennedy Center. Jenkins also blew the Providence audience away as the estranged cowpoke in Sam Shepard's Fool For Love. At the performance I attended he actually missed the bedpost during one of his lassoing monologues and hit a blue haired lady in the front row square in the chest. Breaking character for a moment, he walked to stage front and asked the septuagenarian if she was all right in the gentlest manner, before diving back into Sam the Man's dysfunctional family pool. Last, but not least, in the Trinity production of a Death of a Salesman featuring character actor Ford Rainey as Willy Loman, his second act monologue as Biff actually brought about mid-play standing O, something I've never witnessed, before or after in a non-musical.
In The Vistor (2007, Anchor Bay, 104 minutes, $29.98) Jenkins plays Walter Vale, an economics professor from Connecticut, a widower with a child living abroad, a bottled-up and closed-down middle-aged cipher, trudging step-by-step through dutiful existence. Sent to New York for a conference he opens up his little used Manhattan apartment and discovers a Syrian musician named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend (Danai Guirra) occupying it. Victims of a real estate scam, the two wind up being befriended by the seemingly friendless professor, and the dour middle-aged sleepwalker begins to undergo a personal transformation, ratcheted up by our immigration policies and the appearance of Tarek’s mother (Hian Abbass).
Tom McCarthy, the writer/director works as an actor too (he recently played the duplicitous reporter on the final season of The Wire), works assuredly with his cast, and the film's rhythms and trenchant writing ring true, yet the piece still revolves around Jenkins deceivingly sturdy shoulders. Usually a multi-racial drama that asks us to draw our conclusions predominately through a white protagonist wilts because of its inherent liberal pretentiousness. Since The Visitor’s polemics actually center around a theme of commonality, and since the narrative is driven by the slow awakening of Jenkins’ character, and the heartfelt humanism he brings to the table, the movie delivers in a movingly good-natured way. It's a pure triumph for Jenkins, a good guy with a stellar rep as both citizen and thespian.

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