By: Jessica Goddard
Paolo Virzì’s geriatric road trip flick wastes the legendary talents of Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren on some of the most unfortunate forced sentimentality and rushed melodrama I’ve seen in years. Despite a promising premise, this adaption of Michael Zadoorian’s novel of the same name is more often cringeworthy than sincere.
Set deliberately in the summer of 2016 while Trump is still on the campaign trail, an old married couple skip town in their 1975 Winnebago “the Leisure Seeker”, which – like the two of them – has seen better days. Leaving their grown children in dismay, John (Sutherland) and Ella (Mirren) plan to drive from their home in Massachusetts to Key West as a last hurrah, presumably before John’s quickly progressing Alzheimer’s and Ella’s cancer catch up to them. Along the way, there are predictable on-the-road-again episodes, ranging from the narrowly believable to the irksomely farfetched (at one point, John’s Alzheimer’s causes him to drive off without Ella after a pit stop… so of course she hitches a ride on the back of a denim-vested biker’s motorcycle).
Both John and Ella have their elderly quirks. Retired high school English teacher John knows everything about Ernest Hemingway and doesn’t hesitate to go on and on about Hemingway’s genius to anyone who will listen; while similarly, Ella is one of those too chatty, too friendly types who doesn’t recognize when her listener is trying to disengage.
Any of the script’s interesting elements are obvious borrows from the novel; like Ella’s nightly slideshows of their family, designed to jog John’s quickly deteriorating memory. But The Leisure Seeker features some of the most unnatural, contrived writing I’ve seen greenlit in a while. While John is incapable of remembering his children’s names and ages, he’s the designated driver of a massive, 40-year-old RV. A hidden (and then less hidden) shotgun never stops lingering dramatically over the couple as they carry on in their shenanigans. In the second half, long-held marital secrets are revealed by senile accident and the race-against-the-clock element is played up as the characters get sicker and sicker, thrusting the movie towards a hurried resolution. The dialogue is clunky and the delivery is resultingly awkward. It’s almost as if this movie was written by AI software to see if bots could convincingly replicate human emotion.
Not to be a wet blanket (there’s enough of those in a movie about seniors), but I’m inclined to agree with John and Ella’s exasperated children – John and Ella should’ve stayed at home. And The Leisure Seeker should’ve stayed an unadapted novel.
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Jessica Goddard: @TheJGod