Director: Paolo Virzì
Screenplay: Paolo Virzì, Francesca Archibugi, Francesco Piccolo, Stephen Amidon
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Helen Mirren, Christian McKay, Janel Moloney, Dana Ivey, Dick Gregory
Runtime: 112 Minutes
We're still in that weird period in which films produced during the midst of the 2016 US election are eventually crawling to their release dates, and it'll be genuinely interesting to see just how much of The Leisure Seeker has been cut down from its original form as the sounds of Trump and MAGA rallies echo in the background to a couple of scenes - or if they've even been edited at all, because the film as it stands doesn't have much at all to say about the shift of American culture in this period despite its prominence as a backdrop. Or much of anything else, for that matter.
Despite the carefree atmosphere that it so clearly wants to evoke, as we see our free-spirited elderly couple – John and Ella Spencer (Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren) – escaping from their real-world woes in favour of one last trip cross country before they both succumb to Alzheimer’s and a cancer diagnosis, the film is almost entirely different without incident baring a few major reveals in what we can only assume is the third act.
Though apparently designed in such a fashion, it lacks any major hook to proceedings beyond a few mildly amusing repeated interactions and the chemistry between Mirren and Sutherland. To their credit, they are both very good in their roles with the material they’ve been handed. The performances are believable, and they grant their characters a humane sense of levity and emotion with a weight of routine informing their verbally regurgitated past stories.
But the story they’re being used in is one fulfilling a very white American fantasy, and although it isn’t without the occasional glances in the direction of racial representation, it only every approach a topic of discussion before losing its train of thought and plodding along on their voyage with them. Considering this is director and co-writer Paolo Virzì’s first full English-language feature adapted from a well-received text, it doesn’t find a structure or tone strong enough to make it work that isn't fluctuating wildly.
There are moments when it looks like it’s going to work, such as John wondering into a MAGA rally and unable to control himself joins in the chanting before Ella pulls him aside to dress him down considering he’s an otherwise well-educated, Democratic voting academic. But no, it’s moved on from as quickly as any other scene.
In fact, the only point in which it seems to jump to life is a revelation regarding John’s faithfulness that slips out because of his state of mind. The repercussions of which are unpacked, examined and wrapped up in the space of roughly quarter of an hour, before moving on to a heavily misjudged climax that might sound profound on paper, but the more thought that’s afforded it makes it very uncomfortable.
The Leisure Seeker is mostly just a messy work of unrealised potential for commentary or substance, with many characters dealt signposted roles that never actually come of anything. Occasionally elevated by its two leads, but too often saccharine and unhappily forgettable.