Film Review: The Leisure Seeker

A somewhat generic but mostly agreeable road-trip movie about a long-married couple (Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren) on their final vacation.
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Mounting predictability and a few credibility-free scenes notwithstanding, Paola Virzi’s The Leisure Seeker is an engaging road-trip movie about two still-ambulatory seniors who are nonetheless circling the drain. It’s John and Ella Spencer’s (Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren) final vacation in their beloved 1975 Winnebago, which they’ve dubbed “the leisure seeker.”

Deterioration, death, dying and “choosing” how one dies—hot-button issue, that one—are the thematic motifs coupled with gentle life-affirming comedy and, yes, romance. After 60 years of marriage, the Spencers continue to be in love and are more committed to each other than ever.

Loosely adapted from Michael Zadoorian’s highly readable, entertaining yet poignant novel, The Leisure Seeker recounts the Spencers’ adventures on that fateful expedition as they travel down the East Coast along Route 1 from their home in Wellesley, Mass., to Key West, Florida, where John, a retired English professor and Hemingway authority, will visit the iconic writer’s stomping ground. While John enjoys moments of astonishing lucidity—he knowledgeably discusses lofty literary topics, quoting verbatim from one source or another—he’s suffering from dementia; much of the time he’s confused, forgetful and childlike (in some ways the male counterpart to Alice Howland in Still Alice.)

Ella, his junior by at least ten years, is mentally intact though gravely ill. She’s often in pain, popping pills, and sports a wig. It doesn’t take too much insight to surmise she has cancer. (This movie has its share of suds.) Still, for the most part she is cheerful and relentlessly chatty, offering personal tidbits (in an inconsistent Southern accent) to anyone she encounters. When she’s not prattling away to strangers, she’s John’s caretaker and guiding force. In the novel, she’s the narrator.

The Spencers have two grown children, the laid-back Jane (Janel Moloney) and the frenetic Will (Christian McKay), the latter spinning his wheels at what he views as an imprudent misstep on the part of his parents. But the Spencers refuse to be caged in by their children, doctors or anyone else. They’ve upped and left without telling a soul. This is yet another Virzi testimonial to freedom, a trope he sentimentally dramatized in his film Like Crazy, abouttwo mental patients who escape an asylum and take to the road.

Along the way, the Spencers make stops at diners, historic theme parks and campsites where nightly Ella sets up a slide show, projecting pictures of their earlier vacations onto a screen in an effort to jog John’s failing memory. Their excursion includes an encounter with thugs who hold them up (the confrontation has become de rigueur in road-trip pics), and in another scene Ella slips onto the floor, John falls on top of her and both are immobilized. The accident telegraphs their dilapidation and interdependence. Indeed, their disintegration forges a greater bond between them. The film successfully captures their intimacy on many fronts.

Still, festering wounds resurface and secrets are exposed. The genre has come to demand these revelations, and here they’re particularly jarring. In his befuddlement John can’t stop harping on Ella’s first boyfriend, Dan Coleman, whom he’s convinced she’s had an ongoing affair with throughout their marriage. To put that notion to rest, Ella tracks down Dan in a nursing home where he now resides. She hasn’t seen the man in 60-plus years, yet sets out to visit him with John in tow. Dan (Dick Gregory in his final role) is now wheelchair-bound and has no recollection of who she is. Everything about the section is fakery beyond redemption, short of Gregory’s fine performance

Also out of left field and equally contrived, at one point John confuses Ella for a neighbor with whom he had a two-year sexual relationship years earlier. Hallucinating, he spills all! Naturally, Ella was clueless and now, in an enraged tailspin (a spurious response if ever there was one), she unceremoniously deposits John in the nearest nursing home. Admittedly, she calms down, picks him up later and they continue on their journey. But what has been gained by any of it? The viewer shouldn’t be asked to endure these gratuitous intrusions.

Still, the chemistry between the two actors is palpable and a lifetime is evoked. Exasperated at John’s decline, Ella plaintively asks, “What is going on in that brain of yours?” and when he voices a cogent, clear-headed moment, Ella celebrates his “coming back” to her as the John she knew and loved. It’s a touching interlude made all the more so in light of its short duration. Within seconds, he is groping for words and unsure of where he is.

Sutherland gives a great performance. No one conjures up the professorial persona better than he does, whatever the character’s mental competence. Who can forget his stoned prof in Animal House? Mirren is, as always, a consummate pro, though her intermittent Southern accent is distracting. It’s not clear why she had to be Southern at all.

The geographic/cultural backdrop is a curiosity too, not fully realized, yet in some ways superior to the novel’s setting, where the couple travels Route 66 (talk about mythic) from Detroit to Disneyland. It’s Americana all the way and that’s precisely why Virzi, making his first English-language film, didn’t want to do it. The grand, mountainous, open-sky landscape, he says, has become a cliché and thus that much more inauthentic for him to exploit as an Italian native.

Albeit on a smaller scale, the Route 1 journey is as visually compelling in its own right, from the cheesy wartime reenactments at local festivals to the excessively commercialized Hemingway Home and Museum surroundings. Luca Bigazzi’s cinematography is splendid. And given John’s scholarly interests, it’s far more logical for the Spencers to be travelling to Key West as opposed to Disneyland. In the novel he has no such intellectual proclivities. John has been substantially fleshed out in the film and it works nicely. Screenwriter Stephen Amidon (Human Capital, also directed by Virzi) nailed it there.

Less successful and somewhat puzzling is the musical score—throughout, we’re hearing hit tunes of the ’60s sung by such icons as Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan and Carole King—juxtaposed with boisterous background rallies for Clinton, but mostly Trump, interspersed throughout. The story takes place in the summer of 2016. Giant billboards promoting Trump and demonstrators semaphoring signs saying “Make America Great Again” while the song “It’s Too Late” bellows away is intended to suggest something, but what? Failed dreams and/or the corruption of youthful ideals? It adds nothing.

Perhaps because it’s Virzi’s first American-based film and thus a somewhat alien universe to him, The Leisure Seeker feels generic. It doesn’t, for example, have the nuance of the recently released Our Souls at Night, also a senior romance with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, or for that matter 5 Flights Up, a touching 2014 film with Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton, or the most moving of the lot, I’ll See You in My Dreams (2015), featuring Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott. Still, to the degree that The Leisure Seeker represents, whatever its flaws, mature lovers for whom the journey is now the destination, there’s something to celebrate.

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