AFI Fest Review: ‘THE LEISURE SEEKER’ – Winnebago-my
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THE LEISURE SEEKER
Director Paolo Virzì’s THE LEISURE SEEKER is what we in the biz call, “something else.” It’s a delightful, bittersweet, road trip rom-com, but also a wildly problematic, unapologetically manipulative melodrama. If that’s a lot of things, well, then, congratulations! You’ve diagnosed its strength and weakness. And yet, still, this adaptation of Michael Zadoorian’s international bestselling novel manages to be kinda captivating.
Ella (Helen Mirren) and John Spencer (Donald Sutherland) are ready to toss their cares to the wind, taking one last grand hurrah in their ‘75 Winnebago Indian. Nicknamed “The Leisure Seeker,” this RV has seen its fair share of family adventures, but isn’t ready to be retired. Same can be said of the humans inside the vehicle. The gregarious matriarch is determined to get her dementia-suffering, ex-professor husband to the home of Ernest Hemingway in the Florida Keys before he slips away forever. Their adult children, Will (Christian McKay) and Jane (Janel Moloney), are at odds with their parents’ ill-advised vacation plans, worrying profusely and working out issues of their own. But parents know best… or do they?
I’ll take this answer. In the case of the couple here, no, they don’t. There’s totally foreseen (at least by the audience) danger lurking around every corner. They blow a tire, almost get robbed, John wanders off and forgets Ella at a gas station – and more! All of these stressful situations are treated as whimsical scenarios. Only the attempted mugging is genuinely funny. The rest induce anxiety more than anything. Softening our fears slightly is their radio station selection, which ranges from 70’s classic rock, to jazz, to soft rock. The background soundscape of the road and radio noise may make you nostalgic for long road trips with your own family.
A sequence that involves a tired, frustrated Ella abandoning her confused, befuddled hubby at a dumpy rest home doesn’t work at all. The filmmakers had to invent a convoluted reason to have this loving couple have conflict. There’s absolutely no reason that their conflict couldn’t have solely been about disease interrupting their perfect life-plan. Plus, the 10-minute-long scene drags down the narrative momentum, despite its briskness. The other element that never quite gels is the political backdrop. Since this takes place a few days prior to the 2016 election, we hear Trump on the radio, see a Clinton rally on the TV. The Spencer seniors wander into a MAGA rally and cross paths with Clinton supporters. Why not excise this to make the story timeless? As it stands, this backdrop doesn’t augment the narrative – it just distracts.
When the atmosphere becomes sentimental, Stephen Amidon’s adaptation excels. Their nightly chats over the slide projector are sweet, helping to jog John’s memory and helping us care about these characters. After John has an episode, in order to ease an upset Ella, John empathetically states, “What’s been stolen from you has been stolen from me.” This compassionate profundity speaks volumes to those whose lives have been unfortunately touched by Alzheimer’s-stricken parents or spouses. But perhaps the best of these touching moments are during John’s phone call with daughter Jane. Maybe because I can relate all too well to their kids’ concerns, it moved me to tears. Will’s frustration at being the lighthouse keeper when his sibling isn’t around is also deeply resonant.
Mirren is given the most lines, since her character’s a chatterbox and her needs are essentially driving the narrative, but it’s Sutherland who gives a disarming, understated, standout performance. You can see the light Ella talks about subtly being switched on and off through Sutherland’s physicality. His body language differs, right down to the light in his eyes.
Though this isn’t exactly the leisurely cruise through old age anyone seeks, it is enough to remind you of the person in your life who may be suffering. It also might get you to contemplate your own health issues – more specifically, what you would do facing similar challenges.
THE LEISURE SEEKER plays AFI Fest on November 12 and 15. It opens in limited release on January 18, 2018.