'The Leisure Seeker'
‘The Leisure Seeker’ is another dull movie about elderly people discovering a new lease on life. It’s the sort of thing that exists simply because actors of a certain age can still get a movie project bankrolled when they team up, even though this sentimental nonsense is sadly the only material available for them.
Despite a well-cast Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland and desperate stabs at depth and darkness toward the end, ‘The Leisure Seeker’ is very much a dull trip to nowhere.
Sutherland and Mirren star as John and Ella Spencer. John’s a retired English teacher who can still quote entire passages of the books he studied, but thanks to dementia is having a hard time with everything else. Ella’s a chatty and jovial wife who remains dutiful despite their painful current circumstances. The Leisure Seeker of the title is an RV that the pair take on the road to visit Ernest Hemingway’s historic home. Their now-adult children (Christian McKay and Janel Moloney) spend the film worrying about what will happen. They have their reasons. Beyond John’s dementia, Ella is also popping pills and complaining about nausea, suggesting that two illnesses might compound the sentimental powers of this weepie. Let the bickering, confusion, and tragedy commence!
As with so many road movies, the traveling conceit is really just an excuse to lock the two protagonists into a confined space so that they can argue until they reveal truths. The addition of dementia means that these truths tend to pop out of their mouths unexpectedly, or that some revelations slip away. It sounds tragic, but in the hands of Italian director Paolo Virzi (working in English for the first time), it’s also supposed to be comedic. The tone of the movie is all over the place, never certain if it wants to be a melodrama about aging or a comedy about the same themes. Obviously, that mix can work beautifully with this specific subject matter (see Alexander Payne’s ‘About Schmidt’ and ‘Nebraska’), but that requires a delicate understanding of behavior and humanity. Virzi seems to lack that soft touch, playing scenes like one in which John storms into a retirement home with a shotgun to accuse his wife’s ancient boyfriend of carrying out a non-existent affair for laughs that never develop.
The two lead actors do try their best and have some chemistry together. They’re remarkably talented and manage to at least retain their dignity here (even though Mirren’s accent is a bit wonky, which has rarely been a problem for her before). Virzi just never seems to figure out the tone or purpose of the movie he’s trying to make. It doesn’t help that the story is so aggressively American and he isn’t sure how to depict the country or say anything about it as an outsider. Weird inclusions of scenes from the Trump/Clinton election seem totally out of place beyond the fact that Virzi was fascinated by the television coverage while making his movie. That’s just one of the many baffling decisions that serve no purpose.
All road movies are by their nature episodic and hit-or-miss, but this one is particularly lumpy and lost. It’s a deeply boring mess that’s never as funny or moving as it thinks it is. Presumably, the film was made in the hopes that the beloved actors might garner some awards attention. Thankfully, aside from a token Golden Globe nomination to get Helen Mirren to show up to this year’s ceremony, that didn’t happen. Now the movie can disappear back into obscurity where it belongs.