“THE LEISURE SEEKER”
It is difficult to reconcile the loveliness of the performances in “The Leisure Seeker,” particularly that of Helen Mirren, with the movie’s undeniable failure. Likewise, it’s difficult to quite take in the range of Paolo Virzi’s direction here, from sensitive and perceptive to thumpingly clueless.
Virzi is an Italian director, one of the best working today, but parts of his talent don’t make the translation into English. He’s surefooted in the tender and intense interplay between Mirren and Donald Sutherland, who play a long-married couple on a road trip. But most of the casual banter rings false; the humor is tone deaf, and Virzi’s understanding of American types is way off.
For example, though “The Leisure Seeker” is based on Michael Zadoorian’s 2009 novel of the same name, Virzi sets the action in August of 2016, for no particular reason, it seems, but to throw in a few references to the presidential election. At one point, the two stumble into a Trump rally, but the extras that they get for the scene look like, well, Hillary supporters — suburban, upscale and not in any way angry, or at least not angry yet.
The film is the story of two older people who take their old recreational vehicle out of the garage and go on an adventure. Apparently this is something the couple liked to do as young parents, but now things are different. John (Sutherland) is suffering from dementia and goes in and out of mental gear, and Ella (Mirren) is apparently gravely ill, though she looks great and does the thinking for both of them.
At its best, “The Leisure Seeker” creates an affecting and painful sense of people at the end of their lives. She knows it, and he at least knows that he’s slipping. It’s a nice touch that his memory lapses are such a familiar feature in their lives that she’s not even polite about them. He keeps asking where they are, and she gets impatient. On one occasion, he gets into bed and asks where his girlfriend Ella is — the 22-year-old with the blond hair.
As an hour-long TV drama, “The Leisure Seeker” might have worked just fine, and yet even that might have been a stretch. (Perhaps an hour minus about 10 minutes for commercials.) The problem is that the movie has a beginning, and you know that it has to end, but it really can have no middle.
There is no possibility for development in their relationship — he’s pretty much gone. There’s no room for amusing incidents, because the situation is too bleak. Two people sitting around talking about their memories just isn’t drama. And inserting drama out of nowhere — at one point some teenagers try to rob them — falls flat, because it’s an irrelevancy. There’s really nowhere for the movie to go, because there is nowhere for the characters to go. They are beyond change, beyond injury, beyond fear or possibility. Their story is already over, so there’s no room for story.
Still, in playing a woman in that situation, who is lively and full of intelligence and feeling, Mirren has many fine moments. Though much of the movie is empty prattle, here and there she makes you feel the weight of all those years and memories.
There’s beauty here — Virzi is too humane to make a movie without beautiful moments. But a scattered eight or 10 minutes of splendor just isn’t worth an almost two-hour investment of time.