If someone took Albert Brooks’s Lost in America and aged the protagonists a few decades and leached them of their satirical insight, the result might look something like The Leisure Seeker. Where Brooks used an RV to mock his baby-boomer protagonists’ self-delusion, director Paolo Virzi presents elderly husband and wife John and Ella Spencer’s (Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren) eponymous 1975 Winnebago Indian as an unironic symbol of the couple’s free-spirited nonconformity. When Brooks set images of an oversized RV lurching down the highway to the savage rumble of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” he was drawing a sardonic contrast between the rebellious spirit of Easy Rider and the consumerism of the Reagan era. On the other hand, when Virzi uses Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” as his film’s leitmotif, he’s being sincere: The spirit of the ’60s, Virzi suggests, lives on in the hearts of every aging baby-boomer couple that takes a road trip once in a while.
Based on Michael Zadoorian’s novel of the same name, The Leisure Seeker follows the Spencers on their final excursion in their beloved camper. Sneaking away from their anxious adult children (Janel Moloney and Christian McKay), John and Ella travel from their suburban Massachusetts home all the way down the East Coast to Florida on a pilgrimage to visit Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West. Though John is gradually succumbing to Alzheimer’s and Ella is suffering from an unspecified ailment of her own, the old couple do all right for themselves, camping out in RV parks, talking their way out of speeding tickets, and fending off thieves with a shotgun.
Sutherland and Mirren are likeable here, but they’re stuck in little more than an upbeat wish-fulfillment fantasy.
As in his prior Like Crazy, another bittersweet road movie about a lovably daffy duo on the lam, Virzi leans heavily on the considerable charm of his two leads to maintain a tone of lighthearted sentimentality. Sutherland’s take on dementia is appropriately tragicomic, with John, once an English professor, springing unpredictably from the incoherent to the eloquent. Meanwhile, Mirren overcomes a very wobbly Southern accent to bring Ella to life with the snappiness and fortitude that’s become the actress’s stock in trade. But no matter how likable Sutherland and Mirren are, they’re still stuck in little more than an upbeat wish-fulfillment fantasy—and a remarkably unconvincing one at that. The film’s whimsical approach to dying rings hollow because, rather than recognizing any of the difficult decisions and wrenching emotions that surround dying, it offers a pat best-case scenario in which every potential obstacle is overcome simply by its protagonists’ freewheeling joie de vivre.
In place of wit or nuance, The Leisure Seeker gives us strained comedic encounters, most of which consist of individuals looking on in bemusement as Ella delivers an exposition-laden monologue about her past with her husband. And the screenplay’s half-hearted attempts bring contemporary politics into the story only serve to underline how shallow and undefined the film’s worldview really is. Virzi contrives a scene in which John gets swept up in a Donald Trump rally, where he delightedly joins in with the crowd chanting “Make America great again!” before Ella drags him away. The remarkable thing about this scene, so brimming with satirical possibility, is that Virzi manages to get through it without making any sort of statement at all. Virzi raises the specter of Trump only to summarily dismiss it, offering perhaps one last bit of wish fulfillment: the promise of a world without politics.