Some actors give onion or banana-peeling performances where over the course of the film tough outer layers are removed to reveal soft cores. This vehicle for actor Richard Jenkins actually does the opposite.
Despite being an independent film released early in the year, this is an acting performance that the Academy Awards should recognize. Jenkins not only adds layers but he also gives one of the more honest performances I've seen from a male actor this year.
Richard Jenkins (Burn After Reading and North Country) plays Walter Vale, a university professor in Connecticut who is at the outset a lonely and somewhat anti-social person. It's something that clearly stems from the fact that he's a widow.
So, what would be the worst thing for a grumpy old man to get who wants nothing to do with people? It's forcing him to be around said people, constantly, and, intimately.
What Jenkins does is start out with this curmudgeon who we don't really realize is as exposed as a newborn baby, and, Jenkins begins putting clothes, or layers, on, which, ironically, allows us to see more deeply into his character. In other words, he enriches the screen. We, in the audience, don't even realize how naked the man is until he starts putting on the layers.
As the film progresses, Vale puts on the layer of discomfort. He puts on the layer of compassion. He puts on the layer of curiosity. He puts on the layer of interest. One may ask about what is he compassionate, curious, or interested.
In a breakout performance, Haaz Sleiman also gives an amazing performance in one of the best supporting roles of the year. Sleiman plays Tarek Khalil, a young Muslim man who without proper permission rents out Vale's Manhattan apartment. Unfortunately, Tarek and his girlfriend, Zainab, are illegal immigrants from Syria. Zainab sells trinkets in a flea market and Tarek works part-time, but his passion is music, specifically playing the African drums.
From the opening scene, we know that Vale is learning to play the piano. He seems to be fascinated by the drums. This forms a connection between he and Tarek. It's an awkward one. In terms of music, Vale is more Classical, and, Tarek is more Jazz.
It gets to the point where Vale eventually puts on the layer of friendship. It's completely unlikely, an elderly white, upper middle class, conservative man from Connecticut connecting with a 20-something, poor Muslim man from the Middle East.
Yet, if this well written and well-acted film teaches anything, it's that these kinds of connections and friendships are possible, and sometimes necessary. Jenkins does a phenomenal job of portraying this man who seemed content in a self-made prison and how the power of relationships is probably the only power worth fighting for.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for brief language
Running Time: 1 hr. and 44 mins.