Maurice Chevalier once said “Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.” I have experience with the former but not the latter, so I can’t say he’s right. I will say that old age is not much fun when you consider the other alternative. which is youth. But as the self-help books on happiness say, people report more delight in their seventies than they felt in their twenties. You can’t go too wrong for opting for youth. So should the two principals in “The Leisure Seeker,” Paolo Virzi’s first English language feature, a movie that would not have been so heart-tugging with any other pair of actors. The action right down to the conclusion may be predictable, but how can anyone miss anything that features Helen Mirren?
Virzi is fortunate in pairing Mirren with Donald Sutherland, whose chemistry at the supposed age of eighty plus is palpable. These two, Mirren as Ella Spencer and Sutherland as John Spencer, are runaways. Paolo Virzi is in his métier, as the director’s “Like Crazy” hones in on two women in a Tuscany facility for emotionally disturbed who run away together.
Disregarding the regularly telephoned warnings of their two adult children, Will (Christian McKay) and Jane (Janel Moloney, begging them to drive their 1975 Winnebago RV home where they can continue to care for them, the loving couple proceed from their Massachusetts digs to Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West, Florida. As the road movie continues we note that John, a retired college professor, has dementia, sometimes forgetting his wife’s name but never his love for her. For her part Ella is hiding her own affliction, an illness for which she has refused treatment but medicates herself with whiskey, pills and a liquid solution to help her sleep.
We wonder how John is able to drive at all, and in fact he does almost get a ticket for weaving on the scenic and surprisingly empty Route 1 southbound. Aside from their protestations of love, each accuses the other of straying from the marriage, now fifty years old, in a plot device that is a hoary as it is insipid. They stop at a retirement community facility seeking John’s alleged cheating some forty years ago, as John insists on finding the man for whom she transgressed. They disturb one Dan Coleman (the late Dick Gregory), now in a wheelchair and ordering them out of his room.
When they stop at a coffee shop, John insists on quoting from Melville, Hemingway and James Joyce, and gets quite a surprise to find a waitress quite familiar with John’s literary hero. One might be aghast that John, still remembering the quotes he delivered in lectures to his college classes, now insists on repeating “I want a burger.”We wonder who is in worse shape and who will die first: John with his dementia or Ella with her serious illness. Feel free to take bets because the resolution is not far from coming.
Surprisingly this is arthouse fare given its distribution by Sony Pictures Classics, yet it comes off as both a sitcom that fails to elicit audience laughs, and a drama that mimics so many other films. The pleasure of watching two first-class performers in action does, however, succeed in giving this movie your attention, though the surprise element is difficult to find, making the movie too good to be considered a misstep yet not good enough to transcend its form.
Rated R. 112 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online