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Film Review: ‘The Leisure Seeker’

Not even two actors as talented as Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland can save this dreadfully predictable Alzheimer's road movie.

'The Leisure Seeker' Review: Italian Director Botches His U.S. Debut
Courtesy of Toronto Film Festival

There are Alzheimer’s movies that cut to the quick, like “Still Alice,” and then there are Alzheimer’s movies that pander to the worst sort of cheaply-manipulative old-folks cutesiness, like “The Leisure Seeker.” Maybe if there were one crumb of genuine flavor in this stale cheese, it could have passed muster, but this is ersatz curd, dressed up by the presence of Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland without doing credit to either. The bite of Italian director Paolo Virzì’s best films (such as “Human Capital”) is completely absent, replaced not even by dentures but a kind of pandering gumminess.

With a script that signals every progression as obviously as the large-lettered signs used in homes for people with dementia, viewers can guess after 10 minutes exactly how this predictable story is going to end. Still, with these two pros above the title, distributors should be able to attract the blue-rinse crowd at least.

What they’ll get is an anodyne depiction of the U.S. that’s the reverse equivalent of those American-made movies set in Italy, where people are cut-out stereotypes and everything is bee-oo-tee-full. Author Stephen Amidon helped the Italian scripters adapt Michael Zadoorian’s novel, but he’s not able to ensure Virzì can feel the cadence of the English language, and consequently, dialogue delivery lacks a sense of naturalness, not helped by Mirren’s contrived South Carolina accent.

The only real surprise here occurs in the first two minutes, when it seems Virzì is about to take a powerful swipe at his host country: as Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” fills the speakers, her plaintive “something has died” is almost drowned out by a Trump campaign truck on the manicured streets of Wellesley, Mass., blasting the future president’s “make America great again” pitch. The juxtaposition makes you think there’s going to be some political or social commentary here, but no, that promising subtext is subsequently ignored.

It can be argued that all road movies resemble one another, but this one doesn’t even try to make the journey feel fresh. Ultra-chatty Ella Spencer (Mirren) decides the time has come to take out the old Winnebago, nicknamed the Leisure Seeker, and drive with her retired high-school-English-teacher husband John (Sutherland) down to Key West to visit the Hemingway house. The catch is that John has Alzheimer’s and Ella’s on medication, wears a wig and occasionally doubles over with pain. (Gosh, might she have a life-threatening illness?) Their prissy son Will (Christian McKay) freaks out that they’ve disappeared, while their professor daughter Jane (Janel Moloney) expresses concern but keeps it more together.

Meanwhile, Ella and John happily hit the road, stopping at diners and spending nights at camper sites, where they project old family slides onto a screen and welcome other RV owners who’ve clearly got nothing more entertaining to do than view the faded Kodachromes of a couple of strangers. John’s windows of lucidity are unpredictable, and Ella is emotionally exhausted from watching her adored husband lose his memory. What he does remember are passages from his beloved Hemingway and James Joyce, though Ella apparently was never interested in literature. Regarding Tennessee Williams: “Wasn’t he one of the writers you used to love? I seem to remember you took me to one of his plays once,” she drawls, as the tone-deaf script unintentionally strangles any notion of these two as a like-minded couple for the ages, notwithstanding the avalanche of affectionate “my loves” and “honeys” and “darlings” exchanged between them.

Virzì can’t let plot points just happen, but pre-signals them at every opportunity, whether it’s Ella’s pill-taking or that oh-so-casual shot of her covering up a shotgun in the RV’s overhead compartment. Limited by their material, Mirren and Sutherland disappoint, and the few secondary roles are poorer still, especially the insufferable character of Will, whom we’re meant to believe is a closeted gay man still hiding his sexuality from his parents. As for Dick Gregory’s cameo, it’s best to pass over in silence the final role of one of America’s most groundbreaking comedians.

“The Leisure Seeker” is set in summer 2016, during election season, allowing for a brief and very contrived scene at a Trump rally, far weaker than that aforementioned Carole King moment, plus lots of American flags along roadsides. Although shot entirely in the States, everything feels artificial, from bland images in trailer parks to a hold-up scene that can only be described as inept. While such phoniness may pass the believability test offshore, U.S. reaction will be far more critical.

Film Review: ‘The Leisure Seeker’

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 3, 2017. (Also in Toronto Film Festival – Gala.) Running time: 111 MIN.

  • Production: (Italy) A 01 Distribution release of a Bac Films Distribution, Indiana Production, Rai Cinema presentation of an Indiana Production production, with Rai Cinema, in collaboration with Motorino Amaranto, in association with 3 Marys Entertainment, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, Groupama Assicurazioni. (International sales: Bac Films, Paris.) Producers: Fabrizio Donvito, Marco Cohen, Benedetto Habib, Marty Eli Schwartz. Executive producers: Alessandro Mascheroni, Dov Mamann, Daniel Campos Pavoncelli, Cobi Benatoff, David Grumbach, Mathieu Robinet, Gilles Sousa, Bryan Thomas. Coproducer, Elisabetta Boni.
  • Crew: Director: Paolo Virzì. Screenplay: Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi, Francesco Piccolo, Virzì, based on the novel by Michael Zadoorian. Camera (color, widescreen): Luca Bigazzi. Editor: Jacopo Quadri. Music: Carlo Virzì.
  • With: Helen Mirren, Donald Sutherland, Christian McKay, Janel Moloney, Dana Ivey, Dick Gregory. (English dialogue)