The Leisure Seeker

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 The Leisure Seeker

Ella and John Spencer (Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland) have lived a long, happy life together, frequently traveling around the country in their beloved, old RV. Things are changing for the two and their time together grows short. Without telling anyone, including their children, they set off on a trek from Boston to Key West for one last adventure in “The Leisure Seeker.”

Director Paolo Virzi, with his team of co-scribes (Francesca Archibugi, Francesco Piccolo, and Stephen Amidon), adapts the novel, by Michael Zadoorian, and creates an odd amalgamation of goofy road movie and touching end of life romance. As such, some of it works – Ella dealing, day by day, with John’s encroaching dementia – and some of it does not – the couple is robbed, at knifepoint, in the middle of nowhere by two thugs. (That scene is painful to watch but, fear not, good will prevail over bad at the end of it).

The road movie part of “The Leisure Seeker” is a worn out cliché of mishaps and mirth as the couple makes the last journey they will likely have. But, the relationship between Ella and John is made rich and full-bodied by the talent of Mirren and Sutherland. (The two last appeared together in the 1990 film, “Bethune: The Making of a Hero,” of which I have not a clue.)

John is falling slowly but inexorably into the closed-off world of dementia and Ella knows it. She makes the decision for them to go on a trip, unfettered by familial bonds and duties, which John, a former college literature professor, has always wanted: visit Hemingway’s home on Key West. This is where the road movie takes over and dominates, to mixed effect, the bulk of the film.

As I face my fast-approaching ”golden years,” the thoughts about aging, health, the quality of life and, ultimately, death are more frequent in my mind. As such, Ella and John’s story strikes a chord deep within me on the issues I, too, may face someday. It is too bad that this touching story is couched in a mediocre road trip. I give it a C+.

As a Trump campaign truck blares down a leafy, suburban street, Ella Spencer (Helen Mirren) initiates her escape.  She's determined that her husband, retired English professor John (Donald Sutherland), will see the home of his literary hero, Ernest Hemingway, in Key West, before Alzheimer's overtakes him.  When her son Will (Christian McKay, "Me & Orson Welles") arrives at their Wellesley, MA, home, he's panicked that their '75 Winnebago Indian is gone but mom assures him and his sister Jane (Janel Moloney, HBO's 'The Leftovers') from an untraceable pay phone that all is well aboard "The Leisure Seeker."

Italian director Paolo Virzì ("Human Capital") tackles his first American movie and the best decision he made was insisting on British and Canadian actors Mirren and Sutherland as his stars.  While Sutherland's addled John makes for a surprisingly assured pilot of the couple's old RV, Virzi's film veers all over the map, too frequently straining the limits of taste.  Mirren and Sutherland make the best of a very bumpy road trip, but one is left wondering why they signed on for the ride.

While John can recite long literary passages from memory, he has trouble remembering his own family's names or even where he is.  Ella, a Southerner injected with a gramophone needle, combats this with nightly slide shows projected outside their RV (in fact, everything Ella does, from expressing anger to constantly asking John to remember, goes against how one should treat an Alzheimer's sufferer). One of Virzi's best moments depicts John and Ella reminiscing in front of their screen, unaware of the fellow RVers who've lined up behind them to watch the show.

But these are few and far between in this episodic road trip.  Mirren's charming 'making friends' wherever she goes, whether they be gas station attendant, waitress or fellow travelers looking to escape her constant chatter, less so becoming annoyed when John remembers a favored student who spies him at a historical theme park.  Sutherland ably segues from far away dementia to lucidity, never more amusingly than when correcting the grammar of erstwhile highway robbers in a scene that is otherwise entirely amateurish.  John's jealous rages over Ella's first boyfriend pan out in a surprising way (played by a beloved icon who passed away last year), but Ella's response to a parallel revelation, while played for comedy, is as cruel as it is unrealistic.

Trump campaign rallies follow the couple along their journey, symbolic of a world Ella and John wish to escape, despite John's happy wanderings within.  A forced stop in a luxury hotel suite rewards the audience with a bit of romance, the pair dancing to the delightfully unexpected yet lyrically spot on 'Don't Leave Me This Way,' a prelude to a tipoff we've been waiting for all along.  The couple's final destination is another clue to how the journey will end for those who haven't seen it coming since they left their driveway.

Virzi had the good sense to choose less known locations, changing the route of Michael Zadoorian's book to U.S. Route 1 South, but his screenplay with Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi and Francesco Piccolo is trite and sentimental when it isn't downright offensive.  Mirren and Sutherland make a great pair, but they need another vehicle.

Grade:  C-
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