How’s this for a wild and wacky road trip: two seniors set off in their ancient Winnebago for one last hurrah on a journey that takes them from their home in Massachusetts south to The Ernest Hemingway Home in Key West, Florida. Added to the mix is the fact that she’s got cancer and he’s suffering from Alzheimer’s. That’s the plot of the new film The Leisure Seeker, which stars Oscar winner Helen Mirren and 2018 Honorary Oscar recipient Donald Sutherland. The comedy/drama is based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Michael Zadoorian and is the first full length English-language movie by director Paolo Virzì.
The Leisure Seeker is a nickname for the old family RV coined by Ella Spencer (Mirren’s character). No doubt this vehicle is filled with nostalgic memories, and it’s in this old camper that the elderly couple makes their whimsical escape from looming hospital treatments and the care of their grown children, Will and Jane. Although this road trip is played for laughs for the majority of the film, it’s also highly improbable and dangerous given John’s (Sutherland’s character) deteriorating health. His memory is so bad that at times the senior can’t even remember his own wife or the fact that his children are now adults. Despite this, the film would have us believe that he’s responsible enough to be a competent driver and remember the rules of the road on the arduous journey that spans several days and hundreds of miles.
One of the main focuses of the film involves the physical and psychological rigours of growing old. As The Leisure Seeker progresses, it becomes painfully obvious that regardless of efforts, such as Ella wearing a wig or the couple embarking on their clandestine road trip, there is no escaping the ravages of time and its effects on the mind and body. The film features numerous scenes involving peeing and vomiting in inappropriate places as well as some tired discussions debating boxers or briefs. In one scene, featuring a cameo by Dick Gregory, an elderly nursing home resident is asked about his underwear style of choice. He’s quick to respond, “I wear diapers”. This brief exchange seems indicative of the type of comedy featured throughout the film. Material that was probably meant to elicit a chuckle or two is just too sad or pathetic to be funny.
At times The Leisure Seekers seems to provide hints that it could’ve been a much better film. The plot includes a variety of interesting ideas that should have been explored but weren’t. A good example of this is the recurring references to the U.S. 2016 Presidential Election that keep popping up again and again throughout the couple’s journey. The Leisure Seeker begins with a car roaming a suburban neighbourhood broadcasting a speech by Donald Trump over its loud speakers. Later on in the road trip, the travelling couple happen upon a Trump rally, which John gets caught up in for a short time before being reminded by his wife that he’s a lifelong Democrat. These repeated references to the federal election seem like wasted opportunities that could’ve been used to illustrate the increasingly dysfunctional political climate currently being played out in the U.S. Instead, however, this background information seems unnecessary and falls short of making any kind of worthwhile commentary.
Although there’s no denying that Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland give the film an added degree of prestige and likability, viewers will no doubt feel let down by The Leisure Seeker. It seems more than a little ironic that the film, given its template (the U.S. east coast) and specific time period (the 2016 Presidential election), should feel distinctly American and yet it has been brought to the big screen with a Canadian and Brit in the lead roles and an Italian director at the artistic helm… it’s a small world indeed.
The Leisure Seeker is now playing in theatres.