The Station Agent's writer/director, Tom McCarthy, follows up that surprise success with another self-consciously whimsical tale of an unlikely threesome—except this time he decides to get political, making a liberal-guilt-trip movie about first-world ignorance of third-world culture. When recently widowed Connecticut economics professor Walter Vale (the excellent character actor Richard Jenkins, in an unfortunately fussy, mannered performance) returns to his long-untended Manhattan apartment, he finds it occupied by a young Syrian emigré, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira), who've been swindled into thinking that the place is theirs. In the first of several dastardly turns toward the pious, Walter lets his unexpected houseguests stay on, in return for which Tarek teaches him how to play the African drum, and the grieving Walter starts to get his groove back. Then the ugly face of post-9/11 racial profiling comes along, landing the undocumented Tarek in a government detention center and spurring Walter's outrage that such things can happen in the supposed Land of the Free. (Who knew?) Nothing if not an equal-opportunity patronizer, McCarthy loads up the rest of the film with examples of Muslim-on-Muslim discrimination and self-consciously ironic flashes of pro-liberty propaganda. He undoubtedly means well, but he's made one of those incredibly naive movies that gives liberals a bad name, and does more to regress the sociopolitical discourse than advance it.
Jenkins (left) learns the beat from Sleiman.
Opens at Harvard Exit, Fri., April 18. Rated PG-13. 103 minutes.