Short of being an actual saint, looking after a loved one who requires long-term care is a struggle. In theory, we would do anything for the people we love the most. But after months or years of making sacrifices to help a person who may never recover, it’s natural for feelings of frustration and resentment to start creeping in. In The Leisure Seeker, director Paolo Virzì explores the complicated feelings of a devoted wife looking after her mentally deteriorating husband. Virzi takes the bleak material and serves it up with a heavy dose of road trip movie hijinks. The result is an inconsistent dramedy made palatable by the strength of its two leads.
Ella (Helen Mirren) and John Spencer (Donald Sutherland) are a long-married elderly couple who are about to have their lives upended. Both of them are sick and in need of inpatient care. John is smart, charming, and quick to smile but his mind is slipping away and he lives in a constant state of confusion. Ella is still sharp as a whip — even a little devious — and she’s not ready to part with her beloved husband.
The film begins with their son Will (Christian McKay) on his way over to his parents’ home to take them away to their respective long-term care facilities. Under the cover of night, Ella rounds up John, revs up their RV (a jalopy named The Leisure Seeker), and they take off together for one last hurrah. John is a lifelong scholar so Ella plans on taking him on a trip from Boston to the Ernest Hemingway Home in Key West. But even though they’re putting hundreds of miles between themselves and their worried kids, they’re on borrowed time. And it’s uncertain whether their journey will end in a blaze of glory or putter out like one of John’s old-man farts.
Mirren and Sutherland are a couple of seasoned pros — there are over 100 years of acting experience between them. The person responsible for casting these two deserves a bonus because this movie doesn’t work without them since it barely works with them. Between the below average script, middle of the road direction, and half-baked themes, this film should be a slough. Instead, these two old-timers elevate the material and make The Leisure Seeker palatable.
Some actors always play the same type of character regardless of which film or genre they tackle while others seek out the most challenging roles available. As I watched Sutherland, I couldn’t believe this is the same man who played that vindictive bastard, President Snow, in The Hunger Games movies. He completely immerses himself in his character. At times, John is a sage professor, at others, he behaves childishly, and during his lowest moments, he appears completely broken. Even as John shifts through different emotional phases Sutherland plays him with an impish charm that makes it hard to stay mad at him, even as he misbehaves.
While the two acting legends have equal screen time, Mirren’s character Ella is the beating heart of the film. With John’s brain on the fritz, Ella must play two roles, companion and caregiver, while also driving the plot forward. When John’s mind is clear and present the duo are like Bonnie and Clyde. They’re madly in love and dialled into each other’s quirks with the kind of sympathetic banter that only comes from decades together. When John tunes out, Ella becomes lovelorn, nostalgic, and exasperated. One of the film’s most peculiar decisions is her constant disbelief of John’s symptoms. It’s as if she’s learning about the scope of his illness along with the audience.
As good as these two are, there’s only so much they can do with this lacklustre script. The Leisure Seeker is unsure of what it wants to be. There are moments that yank at your heartstrings as though you’re watching Michael Haneke’s cinematic gut-punch, Amour. Then it shifts gears, slipping right into some road trip movie hijinks that wouldn’t be out of place in The Hangover movies. At their best, the comedy feels undercooked, like first drafts of funny ideas that need more polish. While mildly cute, the comedic setpieces don’t land and it’s jarring to watch the movie take such wild comedic swings before diving back into a sobering scene.
At their worst, the jokes mine humour from John’s condition. There are several moments that left me wondering whether I was misreading the scene. Late in the film, John sneaks into an old age home with a shotgun and threatens the geriatric residents. This is after going into a jealous rage, pointing a gun at Ella, and demanding she take him to an old lover. I have a pitch-black sense of humour and even I found laughing at these moments to be in poor taste.
Outside of fairy tales, love has no happy endings. Either it fades away over time or you lose the people you care about to old age before they lose you. What matters is that we make the most of our fleeting time together. The Leisure Seeker isn’t a great movie but it succeeds at getting this point across. Watching this film will make you consider going home and returning your mother’s call a bit sooner than you normally would, keeping that iPhone in your pocket while out with friends, and holding the one you love just a little bit tighter the next time you see them.
- Release Date: 3/16/2018