Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren star in the alternately touching and enervating comic drama "The Leisure Seeker," about Ella and John Spencer, who've been married for 50 years when they decide to set out on one final road trip in their beloved 1975 Winnebago, the name of which lends the film its title.
With nary a word to let anyone know where they're going, the couple leave their Massachusetts home behind and head south. A retired professor of literature, John is prone to waxing on about his love for Ernest Hemingway, and the couple's ultimate destination is the author's home down in Key West.
John's suffering from dementia, and the disease has given him a tendency to slip in and out of the past; one night he wakes up bewildered, not recognizing the gray-haired woman lying next to him as the woman he married so many decades ago. Meanwhile, Ella has been refusing treatment for her cancer and only sporadically remembers to take her medication. Seeing a chance for escape, they speed off down the east coast, taking the opportunity for one last adventure before they lose themselves completely.
The script adds some additional urgency to the story by cutting back to the couple's grown son (Christian McKay) as he grows increasingly frantic that his parents have struck out on the road by themselves. He worries they can't handle a strenuous journey on their own, though his sister (Janel Moloney) is slightly more sanguine about the situation.
On their travels, the couple bicker, reconnect, and encounter a cross-section of the country's population, from helpful motorcyclists and patient diner waitresses, to a pair of hooligans who make the mistake of attempting to rob the couple. All the while they insist on chattering away about the details of their lives, much to the discomfort and occasional bemusement of the people they meet. Their nights are spent sitting in front of slideshows Ella projects on a sheet strung across whatever RV campsite they're currently spending the night in, while she quizzes him on the details of their family and history together.
Sporting a thick Southern accent and a wig, Mirren is as winning as ever. She captures Ella's growing frustration over the swiftness with which John's awareness comes and goes, as the burden falls to her to do the remembering for the both of them. Not to mention the way John can instantly recall the name of a pretty student from more than 20 years ago, but can't identify his own children. But we can also sense the love Ella still clearly holds for her husband, even as the man she knows appears to be present less and less.
Sutherland's performance allows us to see both the charming man Ella fell in love with, as well as the lost man who's just as confused and frustrated as she is. Ella may hold her share of anger at the disease that's stolen her husband from her, but as he says during a rare moment of clarity, "whoever stole him from you stole him from me too."
The two veteran actors are wonderful together, easily conjuring up a sense of the couple's shared history together. They're especially sweet during a late scene dancing to Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way" (a choice that's little on the nose, but effective nonetheless). But it's not difficult to see where this is all headed, and even performers as skilled as these two can't alleviate the sense that we've seen this story before.
Based on a novel by Michael Zadoorian, the script to "The Leisure Seeker" is credited to no less than four writers (Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi, Francesco Piccolo, and Virzì), and perhaps as a result of so many hands in the pot, the film never quite nails the tone it's aiming for. Too many scenes veer toward sensationalism, and while the script seeks to be a clear-eyed exploration of aging, it can't resist sprinkling in a few too many lazy jokes about incontinence and farting.
Italian director Paolo Virzì's outsider's perspective does occasionally add an intriguing angle to the material. The original novel was published in 2009, but Virzì shifts the action to August of 2016, seemingly just so he can open the film with a Donald Trump campaign speech, then later include a scene in which the couple stumble into a MAGA rally. The filmmaker seems to want the story to be a look back on the things that have slipped away, both personal and across the nation. There's also a scene late in the film that displays an unanticipated sexual frankness, a welcome departure from the expected.
But the film works almost in spite of itself, and somewhere along the way "The Leisure Seeker" finds enough moments that resonate -- about the things we choose to face and those we choose not to, about facing the end on one's own terms, and the security that comes from the knowledge that we've selected just the right person to sit in the copilot's seat.