Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland can do anything – except, perhaps, save this sentimental drool bucket of senior cinema. It’s not their fault: The Leisure Seeker is a road movie that lets its formidable stars down by shamelessly pandering and following a predictable path to been-there-seen-that.
In his first English-language feature, Italian director Paolo Virzì (Human Capital) shows he has his heart in the right place – it’s just his knack for pacing, surprise and blunt truth that’s M.I.A. here. Mirren plays Ella Spencer, a steel magnolia who decides it’s time to get herself and her husband, John (Sutherland), out from under the overprotective clutches of their kids: their son Will (Christian McKay) and their daughter Jane (Janel Moloney). If you think the character names are generic, wait till you hit the wall of bland that screenwriters Virzi, Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi and Francesco Piccolo have constructed from Michael Zadoorian’s novel.
Ella is in the midst of battling cancer; as for John, he only has moments of lucidity to interrupt his encroaching dementia. The old dears haven’t got long, but they’re determined to drag out the family 1975 Winnebago, nicknamed the Leisure Seeker, and drive the rickety thing from New England to Key West. The goal: to see the Ernest Hemingway house (John is a retired English teacher, enamored of the great Papa).
Set in 2016, during the Trump campaign – cue Carole King singing “something inside has died” – the film suggests an elegy to glory days gone by. But credibility gets lost as the script drops in the hole between gags and grit. John has Alzheimert’s, but is still the designated driver. A shotgun stored in an overhead RV bin suggests dire possibilities that do get played out. Dame Helen speaks her lines in an in-and-out South Carolina accent that helpfully distracts from the nonsense being said about former lovers and secret betrayals. Along the way, they encounter every cliched character you can imagine, from sassy kids and flirty waitresses to road gangs.
You may reach your potential limit at any number of stops along the way; I reached mine when the couple arrive at a camp site and Ella tries to jog John’s memory. She strings up a sheet by a camp fire to show a slideshow of the couple’s times together; soon, strangers have gathered, misty-eyed and watching along with them. Everyone associated with this movie deserved better than this. Audiences included.