The Leisure Seeker is a drama (with comedic elements) about an elderly couple, Ella and John Spencer (played by four-time Oscar nominee (and one-time winner) Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland (currently starring as J. Paul Getty on the FX series Trust), who take one last road trip in their old camper just before she is supposed to go into treatment for an illness and he succumbs completely to memory loss. It is a sad story about a woman trying desperately to hang on to the last remaining bits of the man she loves. Sutherland and Mirren play the characters well. You can really sense the love between them. Sadly, they are stranded in a disappointing movie that does not totally seem to understand what they are going through and tends to use humor in moments that are not funny.
As the film opens, Ella and John’s adult children, Will (Christian McKay) and Jane (Janel Moloney) show up at their house so Will can look after John while Jane takes Ella in for treatment. However, their parents are not there. Ella has come up with a road trip taking them from their home in Massachusetts to the Hemingway House in Key West. John was a professor with a love for Ernest Hemingway and he always wanted to go there. The film largely follows their road trip (while checking in on their worried kids from time to time).
The purpose of the trip is that Ella wants to hold off the inevitable for as long as possible. In this case, the inevitable is that she will be separated from her husband forever, either because of her illness or because he forgets her. This is a relatable and inherently sad turn of events. There is nothing wrong with finding humor in sadness. But The Leisure Seeker (based on the 2009 novel by Michael Zadoorian) is not really about the awful fork in the road that Ella and John’s lives have come to. It uses their problems mainly for cute plot conflict purposes. I was never fully invested in these characters because they never felt like real people to me.
Both Mirren and Sutherland are great actors and they do the best they can to try to bring honest emotion to the film. But it undercuts them at every turn. There are a few moments where Mirren has to act in a way that feels contrary to everything we know about Ella. But the biggest knock against The Leisure Seeker is the way it uses John’s memory loss for cheap laughs. It makes sense that Ella would develop a sense of humor about it (though there are a couple of moments where she comes off as mean). However, there are far too many times where it feels like the film is teasing John who, of course, does not know what is going on. That could certainly work in some comedies. But this is not a comedy. It is a manipulative drama, aiming for tearjerker status. So the forced attempts at slightly mean-spirited humor fall flat and drag the film down with them.
Overall, The Leisure Seeker (107 minutes, not including the end credits) is an unsatisfying, and sometimes uncomfortable, journey. It treats the last gasp of freedom of a sick couple as a kind of light romp. I found it to be condescending to its characters, whom it treats without tact. It is unfortunate that when two very good, older actors like Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland get to star in a movie together, that movie does not come close to living up to their talents.
1¾ out of 5
Helen Mirren as Ella Spencer
Donald Sutherland as John Spencer
Janel Moloney as Jane Spencer
Christian McKay as Will Spencer
Directed by Paolo Virzi
Screenplay by Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi, Francesco Piccolo and Paolo Virzi