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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The emotional rebirth of a sad-sacked, disillusioned college professor is central to two new movies this week. First, the comedy "Smart People" — yesterday, we heard from one of its star, Sarah Jessica Parker.

Today, Bob Mondello reviews a more dramatic variation of the story. It's called "The Visitor."

BOB MONDELLO: Walter Vale is the sort of guy you'd describe as bland and colorless, if you bother describing him at all. He's a 60-something economics professor who's doing little more than going through the motions of living. When those motions take him from his campus to his usually unoccupied New York apartment, he's surprised to find lights on and someone in the bathtub.

(Soundbite of movie "The Visitor")

Ms. DANAI JAKESAI GURIRA (Actor): (As Zainab) Ha. Ha. Get away. Get away.

Mr. RICHARD JENKINS (Actor): (As Walter Vale) Sorry. I'm sorry.

Ms. GURIRA: (As Zainab) Just stay away from me. You leave me alone.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) It's okay.

Ms. GURIRA: (As Zainab) Get away from me, my boyfriend is coming.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) I'm not going to hurt you.

Ms. GURIRA: (As Zainab) Who are you? What are you doing here?

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) This is my apartment.

Ms. GURIRA: (As Zainab) This apartment is not…

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) My name is Walter Vale. I have keys. This is my apartment.

Mr. HAAZ SLEIMAN (Actor): (As Tarek Khalil) What the…

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) Aww(ph), aww, aww…

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) Who are you?

MONDELLO: Tarek, a young Syrian emigre, and his Senegalese girlfriend have been tricked into thinking they're renting this apartment. They quickly packed, though they have nowhere to go. But Walter, realizing that they meant no harm and needing a little noise in a life left too quiet when his wife, a concert pianist, died, lets them stay. He gets more noise than he bargained on, but he sort of likes it. Tarek turns out to be a drummer, and the two men bond over music.

(Soundbite of movie "The Visitor")

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) Walter, I know that you're a very smart man, but with the drum you have to remember not to think. Thinking just screws it up, okay?

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) Okay.

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) Now, give me a couple of bangs.

(Soundbite of drumming)

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) Not so hard, you're not angry at it.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) Okay.

(Soundbite of drumming)

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) Better. Did you think?

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) No.

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek) Good. Come on, follow me.

(Soundbite of drumming)

MONDELLO: Up to this point, the film has been a story about Walter's reemergence into life, but when a simple misunderstanding leads to racial profiling and Tarek gets arrested on the subway, the story veers in another direction.

(Soundbite of movie "The Visitor")

Ms. GURIRA: (As Zainab) How could this happen? He knows better, he wouldn't do anything wrong.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) No, he didn't. I'm sure it'll be okay.

Ms. GURIRA: (As Zainab) No, it won't be okay.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) No, I went down to the precinct and made a statement.

Ms. GURIRA: (As Zainab) That doesn't matter. We are illegal. We are not citizens. And when they find out, they're going to — excuse me.

MONDELLO: Writer-director Tom McCarthy is the guy who created "The Station Agent" a few years back — a story about a lonely, isolated soul who connects with a few other isolated souls in ways both whimsical and serious. That's not a bad description of "The Visitor," though once that immigration issue is raised, seriousness dominates this time, it's easy to see where the film could have gone off the rails, sentimentally or politically correctly.

But the filmmaker isn't intent on drumming messages into the audience's head, so much as he is in using drumming to reveal character through smartly nuanced performances, particularly those two drummers — Haaz Sleiman's enormously appealing Tarek, and Richard Jenkins, whose Walter is quietly unassumingly affecting as he figures out how not to be a visitor in his own life.

I'm Bob Mondello.

SIEGEL: And you can find clips from "The Visitor" and more coverage of what's new and notable at the movies at npr.org/movies.

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