A few times a year, a film is released that explores the sometimes challenging lives of those of us fortunate enough to age into our senior years. Said films can either take a more comedic tone or they can steer pretty hard into the realm of the serious and depressing. The new film from Italian director Paolo Virzi (Like Crazy, Human Capital) The Leisure Seeker falls somewhere in the middle, although it’s mostly safe to take people the age of the lead characters. Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland play long-married couple Ella and John Spencer who decide to take one last road trip—from their Massachusetts home to Key West, Florida—while they still can. His memory loss is becoming a problem, and she’s dying of cancer, and just hours before she is about to go into the hospital for the last time, they take a detour to be together one last time.
Based on the novel by Michael Zadoorian, the film is essentially a road movie in their ancient Winnebago (named “The Leisure Seeker”), with Ella and John stopping at RV parks along the way, dealing with their various issues as they go and avoiding concerned phone calls from their grown children (Janel Moloney and Christian McKay), who are panicking back home. Thanks in large part to John’s memory bouncing from the past to the present in terms of the details he recalls, we’re given glimpses into their past (he was a literature professor; she was a stay-at-home mother, who also made their home open and welcome to his loyal and adoring students). It’s not difficult to predict what issues the couple is going to have along the way, but for the most part, they manage to work together to get to Key West, so he can visit Ernest Hemingway’s house, without too much struggle. This is that frustrating type of film where a person’s disability (in this case, his memory loss) seems to fix itself at exactly the moments they need it to, for as long as is required by the plot. And her cancer-related issues don’t really kick in until the end of their journey.
The Leisure Seeker is largely a sentimental journey, but it doesn’t ignore the very real issues and suffering associated with getting older. The screenplay also doesn’t ignore the fact that his selective memory is a constant source of frustration for her, even though she tries not to let him see it. There’s nothing especially inspired about the way the film is shot, but it is always a curious thing to see your own country through the eyes of someone who does not live there. Director Virzi does seem to get a kick out of how everyone in the South is so kind and chatty, but they also stumble upon a Trump campaign rally (the film is set in 2016, seemingly just to have these events take place during the last presidential race) that illustrates the worst we have to offer as a nation.
Despite its shortcomings as a drama and character study, The Leisure Seeker gives Donald Sutherland a chance to dig his teeth into a leading part for the first time in a long time. He’s been hamming it up in small supporting parts for so long (The Hunger Games series comes to mind) that I’d assumed he was in semi-retirement. But putting him alongside the formidable Mirren brings out the best of what he brought to roles going back to the 1960s and ’70s. Some may find the film uneven, and it is that, but that doesn’t take away from the solid performances and a glimpse into the future for some of us—a future many may not want to acknowledge. It has an ending that seems both inevitable and completely unexpected, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I’m not whole-heartedly recommending it, but if you’re a Mirren completist or you’re just curious to see Sutherland play a fully realized character for the first time in years, you could do worse.