The Leisure Seeker: Destroyed but Not Defeated, by David Bax
In wigs and linen pants, surrounded by timeworn artifacts like the Winnebago from which the film takes its name, the protagonists of Paolo Virzì’s The Leisure Seeker are almost archetypal “old people.” And, at its start, this would seem to be an almost archetypal “old people movie,” a sort of Best Exotic Marigold RV. But, hammy and creaky as it often may be, when it’s at its best, the film taps into the characters’ rage against becoming artifacts themselves, remembered fondly but presently disused by the rest of the world, which marches on while they collect rust in the garage.
Ella (Helen Mirren) is supposed to be admitting her increasingly senile husband, John (Donald Sutherland), to a hospital but decides instead to take their RV from Massachusetts down to the Florida Keys to visit the home of John Hemingway. This is something John’s always wanted to do—he was a professor of literature—but they never made it any further than visting Ella’s family in South Carolina. Now, Ella has decided to seize her moment. The ensuing trip is filled with wacky misadventures but also shaded constantly by John’s fading memories and episodes of the couple’s children (Janel Moloney and Christian McKay) freaking out at their absence. The Leisure Seeker is a “slice of death” comedy.
Eagle-eyed readers will note that Ella is from South Carolina. Yes, that means Mirren spends the entire movie doing a thick-as-barbecue-sauce Southern accent that never ceases to grate. It is superseded in irritation only by whatever the hell her fellow Brit McKay is doing with his voice. He talks like no person who has ever existed. It’s a mix of haughty mid-Atlantic and Regular Joe casualness. It’s what Cary Grant might sound like stoned. It’s awful.
Flaws like this and the film’s meanderingly episodic plot only diminish the comparatively sensitive and well-observed depiction of Alzheimer’s. Sutherland plays it realistically and unselfconsciously. Whether repeating things he has just said (“I want a burger”) or forgetting where and when he is any time he loses his train of thought, he breaks your heart, yes, but he is also frustrating, first to Ella and eventually to us. The maddening thing about this disease is that, for so long, you can still see the person you knew, just beneath the surface. How can it be so difficult for them to act like themselves when they’re right there?
As Ella and John cruise toward death, The Leisure Seeker’s dark joke is that maybe they’re getting out just in time. The film takes place in the late summer of 2016 and, in the course of their journey, they encounter Trump and Clinton supporters. For the most part, both camps are presented as background noise equal in volume but we do get a sly joke about just how far out of your head you’d have to be to shout, “Make America Great Again!”
Perhaps the main takeaway from Ella and John’s trip down the Eastern seaboard is that America is, in fact, already great; not just the beautiful countryside but the people, too, from small-town folks to Syrian immigrants pumping gas in New Jersey to the Latino wedding they encounter and crash at Hemingway’s estate. What’s not so great is getting old. There are good times to be had but it’s mostly a disappointment. In those ways, aging is a lot like The Leisure Seeker.