Sony Pictures Classics
The thought of two veteran actors like Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland making a road trip movie together sure sounds like a good idea on paper, but The Leisure Seeker is a dramedy that tries way too hard while constantly leaning on its stars to try and make the weak material more palatable.
Sutherland plays John Spencer, an English professor suffering from early stage Alzheimer’s, while Mirren is his wife Ella. With John not having much time left, Ella takes him on a trip in their camper, dubbed “The Leisure Seeker,” to visit the former home of Ernest Hemingway in Key West, Florida. Along the way, they meet all sorts of people and try to enjoy their last days together despite a few speed bumps along the way.
Because John’s mental capabilities aren’t all there, he accuses his wife of seeing an old boyfriend named Dan. Her husband’s selective memory infuriates Ella, because he can’t remember important things like the names of their kids, but can remember small inconsequential things. Every evening during their trip, Ella sets up a slide projector to show John pictures to remind him of things they did together
The film is directed by Paolo Virzi, another acclaimed Italian filmmaker trying to make a jump to English-language films with his second road comedy after 2016’s Like Crazy. One can possibly blame the language barrier that Virzi wasn’t aware of the many problems within the script, which he co-wrote with Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi, and Francesco Piccolo, adapted from Michael Zadoorian’s 2009 novel.
Virzi tries to make the movie feel timelier by opening with a sound bite from our current President and having the Spencers run into a group of Trump supporters, but there have been far better iterations of this kind of movie — Little Miss Sunshine, for example.
It’s hard to think of Donald Sutherland playing a role that’s as warm and cuddly as this one, because he’s such a curmudgeon in real life. He mostly allows Mirren to carry the film with her delightful Southern accent and proclivity for cussing. There’s no denying that the two actors play well off each other, and their characters might remind some of their own parents, both in a positive and negative way. Even so, it still feels like both actors have done better work, and the day players they encounter on the road just aren’t up to the task of being in scenes with the skilled vets.
Even Christian MacKay, who was excellent as Orson Welles in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, fails to make the scenes with his sister Jane (Janel Moloney) any more interesting. In fact, the amount of time spent cutting back to John and Ella’s kids seems to be wasted in terms of moving things forward.
This is basically a fairly typical travelogue film where we watch the duo traveling through the Florida vistas, which Virzi captures beautifully. The musical selections and the score by his brother Carlo helps imbue emotions into the otherwise bland attempts at madcap humor. Otherwise, it just plods along failing to ever get much of a laugh.
Still, it’s hard not to be reminded of a much better and funnier 1954 film called The Long, Long Trailer, starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The Leisure Seeker was never meant to be a straight-up comedy, but Lord knows it tries its best to elicit laughs, often resorting to some ridiculous and embarrassing moments.
It’s obvious The Leisure Seeker is specifically tailored towards older adults who might not need anything particularly meaningful or clever in their entertainment. And yet, there’s often a danger of the film making fun of a very serious mental disorder suffered by older people, which some might not find particularly funny.
There have been movies that handled Alzheimer’s far more respectfully such as Sarah Polley’s Away from Her, and while The Leisure Seeker handles the ongoing drama well, its attempts at creating humor within the subject often feels misplaced.
The Leisure Seeker may be able to find a small handful of fans due to the talented duo at its core and the simplicity of its storytelling. For some, it will be a perfectly fine way to kill some time, but there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking here in terms of storytelling, and it seems like a fairly trivial waste of its two leads.
Running time: 112 minutes
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor