THE LEISURE SEEKER
Director: Paolo Virzě
Cast: Helen Mirren, Donald Sutherland, Christian McKay, Janel Moloney
MPAA Rating: (for some sexual material)
Running Time: 1:52
Release Date: 12/15/17 (limited); 3/9/18 (wider); 4/6/18 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 14, 2017
Just about everything about The Leisure Seeker gets worse as the movie progresses. It's the story of a road trip, featuring a decades-long married couple, each of whose health is in rapid decline. The husband suffers from Alzheimer's, and even though the movie doesn't reveal the fact until later in the story (for some reason), it's clear, from the dialogue and the constant pains she suffers, that there is something terribly wrong with the wife. The movie approaches their circumstances with a tone that's more playful than anything, except when it turns maudlin with a cynical degree of timing and manipulation.
We can basically chart those moments. There's a lot of apparent attempts at humor, as John Spencer (Donald Sutherland) goes back and forth in his ability to remember things, while his wife Ella (Helen Mirren) reacts with relatively good spirits—laughing and putting on an air of frustration. Then the movie approaches a similar instance with sincerity: Her frustration is real, and it's heightened by the facts that her own health is in decline and that the only person who could console her is mentally unavailable. Then the screenplay (adapted from Michael Zadoorian's novel by Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi, Francesco Piccolo, and director Paolo Virzě) simply returns the characters to their old routine—the forgetfulness and the cheery response to it.
It's tonal whiplash, as the movie keeps setting up and changing its attitude toward these characters' situation. The story itself begins with little setup, as John and Ella are already on their way south from Massachusetts to Key West, Florida, in their RV. She wants her husband, a former literature teacher, to see Ernest Hemingway's house there while he can still appreciate it. Back at home, their adult children Will (Christian McKay), who has been caring for his parents, and Jane (Janel Moloney) are trying to track them down before anything bad happens.
There is a series of misadventures, mostly involving John's limited memory. He disappears at one point, leading to a frantic search on Ella's part, only to discover that he's eating ice cream by a beach. He's pulled over by the police for swerving on the road, and there's the resulting attempt to get out of a ticket or worse. After the RV gets a flat tire (because of course it does), they're robbed at knife-point by a random gang of thugs, and Ella gets to show off her intimidation skills with a shotgun.
Through all of this, there's a subplot involving John's jealousy over Ella's first boyfriend from so many decades ago. This actually results in two subplots: one having John coerce Ella to confronting the man (with a shotgun hidden down his pant leg) and the other involving the revelation of a long-ago affair that went on under Ella's nose. As with all of the movie's conflicts, these diversions are forced, elongated, and dead ends.
We're meant to cheer on these characters, as they make this trip in spite of their hardships and the pressures of others, but we end up hoping that there will be some sort of intervention by one of the many people in some kind of authority whom they encounter. Instead, the staff at a nursing home simply let the couple go on their way, even after John has threatened one of their residents with a shotgun. He later turns the gun on his wife, and it's played as a joke, since Ella announces that it isn't loaded. John doesn't know that, so it's a bit of mystery what the actual joke is.
The saving graces are Mirren and Sutherland's performances. The actors aren't necessarily doing their own thing here, since it's impossible to separate the characters from the situations in which they find themselves, but at least they take the underlying issues of the material more seriously and with more sincerity than the movie itself. Mirren, adopting a South Carolina twang, is precise in how much of her happy attitude is an act, meant to serve as a consoling influence over her husband, and Sutherland doesn't sugarcoat the severity of John's affliction.
They don't transcend the material, though. They simply rise above it to the best of their abilities. The Leisure Seeker simply doesn't present an empathetic understanding of the characters' respective conditions. It jokes (thankfully without mocking, although it's a fine line) and condescends, with a finale that is inevitable in its mawkishness and bad taste.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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