perfectly describes Richard Jenkins, whose rueful face is familiar even if his name is not. He's of the Gene Hackman school, low-key and unassuming, creator of characters of secondary importance who stay with you long after you've left the movie.

In The Visitor, an offbeat humanist fable gently critical of bureaucracies that dehumanize, Jenkins at long last takes the lead. And, as the 60-year-old actor has demonstrated in film after film, his quiet presence has more authority and colors than the showiest, noisiest of emotional fireworks.

Walter Vale (Jenkins), an economics professor at Connecticut College, is detached, even when hunched over a piano, robotically plunking the keys. He knows the notes, but can't make the music. One who seems permanently stuck in his discomfort zone, Walter is a stranger in his own home.

In this movie written and directed by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent), Walter goes on the predictable journey from emotional detachment to human connection, from milquetoast Connecticut to multiculti Manhattan.

But there's nothing predictable about how McCarthy conceives this loner and how Jenkins plays him. (Yes, fans of The Wire, while wearing his actor hat McCarthy played unscrupulous journalist Scott Templeton.) Jenkins is the classic case of the shy, soft-spoken man who draws listeners toward him.

When his department chair orders Walter to attend a conference in Manhattan, he reluctantly drives to his Greenwich Village pied-a-terre. There the long-hibernating bear finds the counterparts of Goldilocks sitting in his chair, eating his porridge, sleeping in his bed.

Knowing how rarely Walter visits New York, a scam artist has "rented" his apartment to an upbeat Syrian musician, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), and his suspicious Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira). They are illegal immigrants, and more at home in Walter's home than he is.

Rather than call the cops, Walter asks the interlopers to stay. Without realizing it, the three improvise a family.

To disclose any more plot would spoil the ensuing fun and drama. But I will add that Hiam Abbass, the lovely Arab Israeli actress, is on hand in this movie, as heartbreaking as it is hopeful, in which Walter is a symbol of America inching toward connection with other nations.

At first glance Walter isn't a guy you want to spend two hours with. But by the end of the film, you don't want to see him go. Jenkins is like that: He sneaks up on you and steals your heart with light-fingered skill.

DVD/download advisory: While HBO subscribers know Jenkins as the patriarch of the mortuary family in Six Feet Under, movie geeks have been Jenkins fans since he played the deadpan FBI agent in Flirting With Disaster.

His Bob Newhartish melancholy makes comedies more poignant (see him as Jennifer Aniston's soft-spoken dad in Rumor Has It) and dramas more pungent (as Charlize Theron's father in North Country or Emile Hirsch's dad in The Mudge Boy).

The Visitor *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Tom McCarthy. With Richard Jenkins, Hiam Abbass, Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira. Distributed by Overture Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 43 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity)

Playing at: Ritz East and Showcase at the Ritz Center/NJ


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/