Paolo Virzi’s The Leisure Seeker takes place right in the thick of the campaigning for the 2016 presidential election, a fittingly end-of-an-era setting for a film about the last vacation of an aged couple being brought low by their illnesses. This couple is Ella and John (Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland), who run away from home and their caring but overbearing adult children in the RV that lends the film its name for one last hurrah before they’re overcome by Ella’s cancer and John’s slide into dementia.
Wasting no time in getting going, The Leisure Seeker kicks off with the couple’s son Will (Christian McKay) screaming down his phone at his sister Jane (Janel Moloney) that their parents are missing, along with their Winnebago. From there, we follow Ella and John’s progress as they make their way south, their ultimate destination an unspecified quiet spot in the Florida Keys. Along the way, they manage their illnesses and frustrations and get into a series of scrapes both serious and comic. Tonally, the journey is completely scattered, a problem that Virzi and his writing team Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi, and Francesco Piccolo (based on the novel of the same name by Michael Zadoorian) never overcome.
At some points, it’s a serious study of the frailness of aging, earning gentle laughs and empathy as it frankly presents the emotional toll of old age and no longer being able to trust your body and mind. The Leisure Seeker’s most powerful moments come from this strand, but shifts into broader comedy and downright zaniness don’t work nearly as well. In one spectacularly ill-advised sequence, a far from lucid John goes to confront Ella’s first boyfriend Dan (Dick Gregory) and ends up sticking up a nursing home with a shotgun. The Leisure Seeker never recovers from this slice of nonsense, with the impact of later revelations and tragedies dulled by this sudden detachment from reality.
Mirren and Sutherland are both excellent. Mirren is more charismatic in a role that swings from happy to miserable to angry in the blink of an eye as she witnesses her husband’s decline, but Sutherland perhaps has the harder task. Flitting in and out of a demented state, he manages to retain John’s quiet dignity, ensuring his most confused moments always play for poignancy rather than laughs – though the illness hits too frequently at plot opportune moments to feel entirely believable.
Virzi’s supporting cast fare far less well than his leads, McKay in particular a jarring presence, whiny and strained in an admittedly underwritten role. Elsewhere, two muggers are shatteringly bad, their attempts to show off youthful thuggishness coming across as parody. As with much of The Leisure Seeker, it’s up to Mirren and Sutherland to save the day from this problem, a task they rise to with impressive frequency. There’s a feeling of finality to their performances, fitting for such a swansong of a film, but one hopes that they both get better send off movies than this one.
Directed by Paolo Virzi
Written by; Paolo Virzi, Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archubugi, Francesco Piccolo
Starring; Helen Mirren, Donald Sutherland, Christian McKay
Runtime: 112 mins
The Leisure Seeker is released in the UK on 13 April 2018 – seen at the 2017 Venice Film Festival for One Room With A View