When you think of the great Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland, “predictable” is one of the last words that comes to mind.
When you think of “The Leisure Seeker,” in which they play an aging couple on a last-chance road trip, it’s just about only word that does. Not as a description of the actors, mind you — they’re great. But Paolo Virzi’s film, based on a novel by Michael Zadoorian, holds few surprises, leaving us with some enjoyable set pieces in a disappointing movie.
The film opens in a nice neighborhood in Wellesley, Massachusetts, whose peaceful silence is interrupted by a pickup truck blaring a Donald Trump speech, flag flying out of its bed. Another truck drives by, and its driver, Will Spencer (Christian McKay), arrives at his parents’ house, only to find, to his horror, that their RV is missing.
And so are they.
He calls his sister, Jane (Janel Moloney), in a panic. The Leisure Seeker is gone! (That’s the name of the RV.) But soon their mother, Ella (Mirren), calls. She and John (Sutherland) are on a trip, heading to Key West to visit the home of Ernest Hemingway, whom former teacher John idolizes.
Will seems overly concerned about the journey, and his father’s driving in particular. We learn why: John suffers from dementia. Don’t fret, Ella tells him, John’s still a fine driver (and he is). They’re heading south and they aren’t turning back. Thus the stage is set for the rest of the journey, theirs and ours.
This is the kind of story in which John’s illness — and to a lesser extent Ella’s, too, as she is also ailing, though her mind is sharp — serves as a kind of full-service plot generator. Need a dramatic reveal about past indiscretions? You’re in luck! John sometimes mistakes Ella for other women he has known and says things he would never tell his wife. Need a little ginned-up drama when he goes missing? And some comedy when a biker gives her a lift to chase after him? At your service.
Despite all this, it’s clear that John’s love for Ella, and vice versa, is genuine and deeply felt. They typically spend the night in campgrounds, where she’ll string a sheet as a screen and use a projector to show pictures of their family, in part to try to stir John’s memory, in part because she enjoys it. Hokey as it sounds, it’s an effective dramatic device.
There’s also a surprisingly intimate scene between the two of them, one that seems to catch both characters by surprise. It’s in these moments that the film is at its best — allowing these two terrific actors to create moments of real feeling, in which they’re not saddled by clichéd storytelling and predictable plot points.
Good as Sutherland is, Mirren is a gem (despite a sometimes-iffy Southern accent). She registers frustration, anger, concern and love, often in the same scene — sometimes in the same line. It’s just too bad that she has to try to bring life to such easily guessed developments — pretty much every road-trip bit you can think of, combined with all the sick-person scenarios for good measure. Mirren deserves better.
And so do we.
Bill Goodykoontz, USA TODAY Network
Sony Pictures Classics presents a film directed by Paolo Virzi and written by Virzi, Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi and Francesco Piccolo, based on the book by Michael Zadoorian. Rated R (for some sexual material). Running time: 112 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.