We’re all leisure seekers when it comes to cinema but those seeking pleasure will find their patience tested somewhat with Paolo Virzì’s English-language debut feature: The Leisure Seeker.
Try for a moment to think of a film that predominantly focuses on those over seventy in which nobody dies. It’s no mean feat. If the death of a senior citizen is not the climax or turning point of the film, their mortality is its central theme. So it is with The Leisure Seeker, the film adaptation of Michael Zadoorian’s 2009 novel of the same name. Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland reunite on screen, for the first time in almost thirty years, to play Ella and John Spencer, an old married couple who run away from their problems in a ’75 Winnebago Indian.
Specific conditions go unsaid through the film but enough is fed via the script to allow the inference that Ella – ‘a natural-born tourist’ – is dying of cancer, whilst John – ‘a much more sophisticated traveler’ – is fading with Alzheimer’s. Leaving behind two horribly irritating children to fret back home, Ella and John set the house of Ernest Hemingway in the Florida Keys as their final destination. Along the way, escapades will include a roadside robbery and Trump rally – the film being set in the Summer of 2016.
Rather like the love child of The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared and Bonnie and Clyde, The Leisure Seeker imagines itself to be a tale of rebellion, laughing in the face of the inevitable. It is a relationship drama, dependent on two excellent central performances. Whilst Mirren has fun with a southern garbled accent, Sutherland drifts in and out of sentience to humorous and tragic effect. Beyond them, there’s very little to see here.
Central to the problems of the film is that, for all its emotional resonance, there’s not nearly enough meaningful substance to make this a compelling watch. Rather than allowing the relationship of Ella and John to lead the way, the characters are for the most part subject to an increasingly contrived sequence of events. A later twist, reminding of Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, has promise but is granted no more time for development than an earlier scene in a burger joint. No sequence in the film has any impact on the highly predictable arc, undermining any sense of actual purpose.
In a similar vein, Virzì struggles to balance the abundance of metaphors at work in his co-written script. Life affirming sentiment – ‘once again I was compelled to admit that this old contraption isn’t all bad’ – is weighed down by the depressing titular euphemism. Mirren and Sutherland may be impeccable in their performances, channelling heartbreaking poignancy and genuine warmth, but the characters themselves are sketchy.
The diverse reaction of critics towards The Leisure Seeker suggests that some are more willing to go with the film than others. If you’re among the latter, it won’t be the acting that held you back.