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'The Leisure Seeker' features two veteran actors but a story with narrow demographic appeal 

Writer-director Paolo Virzì (The First Beautiful Thing, Human Capital, Like Crazy) directs Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland as an elderly couple who unbeknownst to their family take off on a misguided final adventure in their trusty old RV they call The Leisure Seeker. Based on Michael Zadoorian's novel, the story centers on John Spencer, a former literature teacher with Alzheimer's, and his devoted wife, Ella. (112 min.)

click to enlarge COMMITMENT John (Donald Sutherland) and Emma (Helen Mirren) struggle through the twilight of their long marriage as his dementia and her health problems complicate their final vacation. - PHOTO COURTESY OF INDIANA PRODUCTION COMPANY
  • Photo Courtesy Of Indiana Production Company
  • COMMITMENT John (Donald Sutherland) and Emma (Helen Mirren) struggle through the twilight of their long marriage as his dementia and her health problems complicate their final vacation.

Glen Two great actors, revered source material, and a director known for deftly crafted human stories—what could go wrong? In The Leisure Seeker, surprisingly a lot. Like a lot of effective novels, Zadoorian's story doesn't translate with the same nuance and depth to the big screen. John and Ella are a little too cookie-cutter. He's in turns charming and erudite, albeit overly didactic and a little boring; she's exasperated one minute and desperately in love with John the next. He wakes up and thinks it's a different decade—that he's a young professor off to teach, or he's paranoid about some long lost boyfriend from Ella's youth. She's a doting wife one second and ready to leave him on the side of the road the next. All these pivots are too much even for Mirren and Sutherland to manage without an element of broad cartoonishness. And then there are their two children—Jane Spencer (Janel Moloney) and Will Spencer (Christian McKay)—neither of whom get the development they need and deserve in order to be effective in their roles. Don't get me wrong: This is not a terrible film, and the audience that filled the theater seemed to enjoy it, but it's going to have a very narrow demographic appeal. It's aimed squarely at an older audience, who I bet will be willing to forgive its paint-by-numbers feel.

Anna Sadly, this is one of those films whose best moments are revealed in the trailer. While there are poignant tidbits in The Leisure Seeker, unfortunately they already feel tired if you've sat through the preview a few times. The film certainly has a cast who knows what they're doing, but the juicy bits that really make a character interesting are glossed over, merely hinted at instead of indulged in. Foremost, it is a story of Ella and John's lifelong relationship, their dependency on each other as they both slip into the problems of old age and illness. John is a beloved and brilliant Hemingway-obsessed English professor who can talk literature and verse until the cows come home, but his failing memory has him in a constant cloud of confusion and dementia. Ella is the inevitable caretaker, but we soon learn her own mortality is wobbly at best, and one more road trip is simply a last grasp at the life they had together before. It's supposed to be an introspection on their marriage, and the screenwriters made a fair attempt at displaying the intricacies and complications of their relationship, but it just isn't enough to sell the story. It got applause at the matinee we went to, so maybe I don't fall into the targeted audience, but I'm not surprised that The Leisure Seeker has gotten some pretty dismal reviews from critics, while audiences have scored it higher.

Glen The film has a couple beefy third act twists that can't be discussed without revealing too much of the plot, but suffice it to say, they bring a big bump in John and Ella's long relationship before finding a way to resolve the story that feels both inevitable and surprising. Anna's right that this is the sort of film that will have audience appeal but annoy critics thanks to its treacle-filled plot. The real question is what is the film trying to say, right? What's its message? It seems pretty clear it's about the ups and downs of a long marriage, about both regrets and the legacy you leave behind. It's an old cliché, but love is a decision, not a feeling. John and Ella love each other and can't imagine a life without the other. That's an amazingly sweet sentiment that most married couples hope for in their own relationships, but it's also antiquated and unrealistic for many, especially considering our me-first culture and our misguided belief that each individual's personal needs trump all. And speaking of Trump, there's a side tangent when John gets caught up in a Trump rally, and it's pointless to the story; there's another loose string about their son Will and an allusion to his being gay. These sorts of red herrings do nothing to strengthen The Leisure Seeker, which ultimately doesn't have anything profound to say other than love takes work and commitment. Anyone in a relationship already knows that.

Anna The characters of their children Will and Jane feel a little bit like an afterthought. There's an attempt to make them more than just the anchor at home begging for their parents' quick and safe return, but nothing is touched on with more than a mention. Ella sees a photo of young Will with a male friend they met while traveling. Now she wonders if maybe he is gay, but that plotline is never developed beyond a quick phone call. Jane is the one who followed in her father's footsteps as a professor, who has given them grandchildren, and who Will clearly resents as the "favorite child." He's the put-upon son who lives close by and therefore is inevitably the one doing the dirty work of caring for their aging parents. The conflict between Jane's attitude of letting their parents have one last road trip and Will's panicked insistence on their return is a piece of the film, but again one that's underdeveloped. The film attempts to pull at your heartstrings: John's crumbling ability to remember his life and Ella's frustration with losing the man she has built her life with, along with some devastating revelations, are real world relationship struggles, but unfortunately the film falls flat and these highlights are lost in the wash. The pairing of Mirren and Sutherland is solid; there were a few moments that played out really nicely, but unfortunately I had seen them all in the trailer and there wasn't much meat left on the bone after that, even with those third act twists. Again, I'm probably not the demographic that this film is aiming for, but I'm a sucker for great relationship stories, and this just didn't seem to rise above mediocre. I suggest waiting for this one to hit your streaming service or come to Redbox. It may be worth a watch from the comfort of your couch, but save that movie ticket money for something else. Δ

Split Screen is written by Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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