The opening minutes of The Leisure Seeker promise a more substantive experience than the comedy/drama ultimately delivers. As the camera winds its way around a peaceful New England town, the idyll is broken when a campaign pickup truck enters the scene. Garish, oversized flags mounted in the bed – one on each side – billow in the wind. They are advertising their candidate: TRUMP FOR AMERICA! Director Paolo Virzì then puts a title card up on the screen, setting his story on a specific day in September of 2016, just a few months before the election. Will The Leisure Seeker be some sort of political statement about how presidential politics affect everyday Americans, I wondered? Will the Trump/Clinton campaign merely exist at the edges of the story, never quite taking center stage, but adding poignant commentary to the main action? That second one is closer to the mark, sans the poignancy. Our characters only interact once with the election (I’ll get to that later), and the movie wastes every other reference to it.
The rest of The Leisure Seeker is almost as disappointing. It tells the story of John and Ella Spencer, a retired couple who are struggling with the challenges of getting older. Ella has been diagnosed with cancer, and John is in the grip of some sort of dementia. He is easily confused, forgets where he is, and sometimes thinks the last few decades never happened. He is a shell of the erudite English professor he once was. Ella wants to take one last trip with John in their beaten up old Winnebago, which she lovingly christened The Leisure Seeker. Ernest Hemmingway is John’s literary hero, and he always wanted to visit the author’s home in Key West, Florida. It’s one of those dream trips we all have tucked away in the back of our mind, but somehow, we never seem to get to it. Ella wants to make sure John gets to Key West before it’s too late.
This is a movie that tries to strike a delicate balance between heartfelt, touching drama and broad comedy. It only ever gets one of those sentiments – the drama – right. The Leisure Seeker tries to mine laughs out of an old man’s senile dementia and an old couple’s befuddlement as they take a cross-country road trip in a decrepit RV. These attempts at comedy clash unappealingly with the serious tone that Virzì and the actors manage to establish. As a result, it’s much less impactful than a movie like Still Alice, another meditation on the heartbreaking process of losing someone to dementia.
Whatever does work in The Leisure Seeker – both in terms of the effective drama and the few jokes that manage to land – is all due to the phenomenal talent of the two leads. Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland inhabit the roles of Ella and John completely, and you can see every bit of this duo’s combined century of acting experience in their performances. Sutherland is able to make subtle but powerful adjustments to his charisma and screen presence within the same scene as his character slips in and out of his illness. John’s face is animated and alive with recognition as he converses with Ella, then suddenly the light goes out of his eyes. He becomes a shell of a man; he’s a body with a mind so weak it can only maintain the basics.
Nothing in the movie is more painful than when Ella begs for her husband to return to her. She says she wants her husband back, and in a moment of lucidity, John tells her that he wants the same thing. Whoever took John from her, he says, took him from him, too. Mirren does an outstanding job of bringing Ella to life. Dementia is an illness that can be even harder on the caretaker, and Mirren succeeds in displaying the full range of emotions that someone in her character’s position experiences. Mirren cycles through anger, exasperation, exhaustion, grief, and precious moments of joy when Ella gets her husband back for mere moments at a time.
Any aspiring actor (and most working actors, too) should see The Leisure Seeker just to learn from Mirren and Southerland’s formidable talents. Unfortunately, there aren’t many more reasons to recommend it. Fans of The West Wing might enjoy seeing Janel Moloney as Jane, John and Ella’s daughter. Jane and her brother, Will, frantically try to convince their parents to return home whenever Ella decides to check in with her kids while on the road. Don’t get too excited, though. Moloney’s on screen for only a handful of minutes, and her scenes don’t amount to much.
There’s also a brief subplot where John’s senility leads him to inadvertently spill the beans to Ella about an infidelity he committed decades ago. While Mirren does a good job telegraphing the hurt she feels, the movie squanders the dramatic potential in this revelation. It devolves into a gag for Ella to dump John at an old folks’ home in Florida before she comes to her senses.
Then there’s that bizarre inclusion of the 2016 election. The novel on which the movie is based, written by Michael Zadoorian, was published in 2009. The film began shooting in July of 2016, so perhaps Virzì decided to get some production value out of the zeitgeist-changing atmosphere of the election. It stays mostly at the edges of the film. There’s a Trump campaign speech playing on a TV in a restaurant. John and Ella enter a hotel to get a room, and they walk past a group of people heading to a rally who are all wearing shirts emblazoned with the Hillary Clinton logo.
There is one scene where it breaks through the surface. About half-way through the movie, John and Ella come to a detour in a small town. Ella wants to keep going, but John wants to stop and see what’s happening. It’s a Trump rally. The confused John smiles bemusedly at all the American flags and people cheering. One man screams about getting Muslims out of the country, but John doesn’t seem to notice him. A chant breaks out: “U.S.A! U.S.A!” John joins in before Ella pulls him back to the RV. I mention this episode because there is seemingly no reason behind it. Is Virzì making the facile point that only people suffering dementia would participate in a Trump rally? If you’ve read much of my writing, you know I’m about as receptive of an audience to that kind of message as anyone, but the way Virzì handles it is clumsy at best.
By way of serendipity, I just watched another movie that does something similar, but with much greater effectiveness. It’s David Lean’s second film, made in 1944, called This Happy Breed. It’s a slice-of-life melodrama about 20 years in the life of a middle class British family, from just after WWI to just before WWII. Near the end of the film, the husband and wife at the center of the story go for a stroll. They happen upon a Nazi rally, and the speaker is lecturing the crowd about how English citizens should support Hitler instead of opposing him.
I’m not trying to make a comparison between the rallies in the two movies, but rather what makes one’s inclusion successful and the other a failure. The latter half of This Happy Breed deals with the underlying unease of the coming war, and our heroes coming upon the rally is one more signifier of its inevitable arrival. The rally in The Leisure Seeker isn’t tied to anything else with which the movie is concerned. It’s a perfect example of how unfocused the film is as a whole.
Why it got 2.5 stars:
- If there's any reason to see The Leisure Seeker, it's absolutely for the two lead performances from Sutherland and Mirren. The movie does also achieve touching dramatic moments, but overall, it never knows what it wants to be, a comedy or a drama.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- This is director Paolo Virzì's first full English-language feature. He's an Italian filmmaker, and The Leisure Seeker is his first attempt at an American movie. It's a disappointment for sure, but there's enough here to make me interested in his Italian movies.
- This movie brought to mind another one that was also based on a book. I loathed the film adaptation for Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, but I later read the book, and loved it. I'm now wondering if the same would be true for The Leisure Seeker. I didn't hate the movie, but I felt while I was watching it that the book contained things that weren't successfully translated to the screen, and that's what made it a misfire.
- There is one dreadful scene involving John and Ella dealing with a flat tire. Three young men spot them on the side of the deserted highway, and ask if they can help. They then pull knives on the old couple and attempt to rob them. Ella tells them she needs to go into the RV to get her purse, and returns with a gun. The scene where we learn about the gun makes it painfully obvious that they will need it at some point in the movie.
- Mirren is doing a delicious Southern accent. It's maybe just a bit too thick, but it's a delight to hear Dame Helen Mirren speak this way for two hours. Her character is from North Carolina, while John is from New England.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- No bad actors in the audience this time. This was a press/marketing screening, and the crowd really seemed to enjoy it. They applauded during the credits.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- It's time to cancel the apocalypse once again! Director Guillermo del Toro has handed off his quirky, outrageously fun Pacific Rim to Steven S. DeKnight, who is tasked with getting a franchise for the giant-alien-vs.-giant-robot action movie off the ground. I'm a big fan of the original, so I'm interested to see what DeKnight does with Pacific Rim Uprising.