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Award-winning Italian director Paolo Virzi (The First Beautiful Thing, Human Capital) leaves his usual witty originality at home in his first English-language feature shot in the U.S., The Leisure Seeker, and not even the normally luminous presence of Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland as loving oldsters can raise this modest tale above the level of an occasional smile. A road movie short on comedy and drama should at least offer a keen level of observation, but here insight is scarce and emotional resonance is faint. More of a fizzle than an outright disaster, the film’s star power should anyway get it onto TV, video and airlines after a spin through Venice competition.
It’s hard to miss the rising tide of films made for and about baby boomers crossing the 70-year threshold; the more daring Jane Fonda-Robert Redford drama Our Souls at Night was another example featured at Venice this year. But unless the bar is raised pretty soon, the genre’s limited thematic and stylistic range is likely to run it into the ground. The Leisure Seeker is particularly disappointing for its lack of ambition, suggesting the project was not a good match for the director’s talents.
Mirren and Sutherland play Ella and John Spencer, who are still in love after 50 years of marriage. John, a retired English professor, is quickly sinking into the doddering forgetfulness of Alzheimer’s/dementia. Ella has sudden headaches that take her breath away and bode no good. But their attachment to each other is so strong that rather than live separated in different medical facilities, they decide to dust off their 1975 Winnebago Indian RV and take a last road trip together. One of the film’s biggest emotions is watching John weave dangerously down the highway as trucks whiz past this dinosaur vehicle.
While Michael Zadoorian’s novel, on which the screenplay is based, has the characters traveling west on historic Route 66 to Disneyland, Virzi and his co-scripters take them down the East Coast from their New England home to Hemingway’s house in Key West. This literary destination makes for a less epic but still scenic route, as they stop off at campsites and beaches along the way, and gives John plenty (too much) time to recite prose and poetry.
Both are very frail people. Ella has a secret physical condition that she keeps under control with whiskey and meds, one that will obviously become an issue before the film is over. Though Mirren’s South Carolina accent is dicey, her sunny mood and warm, outgoing nature wins sympathy. While she chatters away to strangers about her family and concerns, John buttonholes glassy-eyed waitresses and gas station attendants with mini-lectures on James Joyce and Herman Melville.
Just as Mirren’s Ella is a humorous example of fortitude under duress, Sutherland’s John is a light-hearted study in forgetfulness. His mind comes in and out of the present, and when he is aware of where he is and who Ella is, he can be totally charming. When he doesn’t remember, it’s painful and depressing. A poignant moment has him trying desperately to ask someone where his wife is, but he can’t remember the word “wife.” Sitting around campsites after dark, Ella sets up a screen and projects old slides to jog his memory about his family, friends and former students. She does this three times.
Both of them are tormented by jealousy and get hung up on the same obsession: that the other has been unfaithful. Out of the blue, John will suddenly accuse Ella of being in touch with her first boyfriend, Dan, though she hasn’t seen him for decades. (This plays out later in the film in a highly implausible way.) When she in turn stumbles onto some startling news about his past, she reacts with equal fire and fury. It’s passibly cute, but none of it advances the characters or story much.
Quite unnecessarily, their trip is punctuated with scenes back home showing their adult children Will (Christian McKay) and Jane (Janel Moloney) stewing over where they are. Their socially sanctioned jailer mentality never poses a real threat to the trip, however, as they are far more inert than their aged parents. Compared to these conventional offspring, Ella and John embody the concept of freedom and free will in the spirit of Virzi’s delightful Italian hit Like Crazy (La pazza gioia), in which Micaela Ramazzoti and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi are two patients on the lam from a mental institution. Here a Janis Joplin song from the 1960s reinforces the all-encompassing value of freedom, especially for those like John and Ella who believe that there is nothing after death and that they have nothing left to lose.
On the plus side, there’s no room for pathos here. Ella’s cheery chatter sometimes gives way to impatience over John’s lapses into the past. “What goes on in that head of yours?” she demands, knowing he can’t answer her beyond a childlike smile that misinterprets the world. But the tone never dips into the maudlin.
Sutherland’s dignified but memory-robbed English prof often rings true through a veil of gentle humor. When John continues to blurt out “I want a burger!” it’s a signal he’s entering his second childhood, a place where Ella will be at best a mother, at worst someone he doesn’t even recognize. This is why she occasionally loses her temper over his “forgetfulness” as she watches his mind slip away. He is quietly moving when, in his final moments of lucidity, he makes her promise never to leave him.
Working with some of Italy’s top craftsmen like cinematographer Luca Bigazzi and editor Jacopo Quadri, Virzi delivers a smooth and attractive-looking film. The ending comes as no surprise, being telegraphed long in advance.
Production companies: Indiana Productions, RAI Cinema in collaboration with Motorino Amaranto, 3 Marys Entertainment
Cast: Helen Mirren, Donald Sutherland, Christian McKay, Janel Moloney, Dana Ivey, Dick Gregory
Director: Paolo Virzi
Screenwriters: Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi, Francesco Piccolo, Paolo Virzi, based on a book by Michael Zadoorian
Producers: Fabrizio Donvito, Marco Cohen, Benedetto Habib
Director of photography: Luca Bigazzi
Production designer: Richard A. Wright
Costume designer: Massimo Cantini Parrini
Editor: Jacopo Quadri
Music: Carlo Virzi
Venue: Venice Film Festival (competition)
World sales: BAC Films Intl.