It must be the season for road movies with this effort from Italian director Paolo Virzi following hot on the heels of American Folk and Kodachrome in that the central narrative premise here is also a road trip across the United States, which in this case takes a north to south trajectory from Massachusetts to the Florida Keys. Like Kodachrome, this is a film in which terminal illness serves as the catalyst for the journey, albeit under somewhat different circumstances and featuring a couple of loved-up septuagenarians who are delightfully daft in their determination to enjoy one last adventure together, despite the fact that one of them is stricken with cancer and the other is addled by dementia. Adapted from a book by Michael Zadoorian, The Leisure Seeker marks the first English-language film from Verzi in a 25-year career.
When the film begins, Ella and John Spencer (Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland) have already set off on their adventure aboard their 1974-vintage Winnebago (which they have dubbed The Leisure Seeker), much to the consternation of their son Will (Christian McKay) and daughter Jane (Janel Moloney). A retired English teacher who waxes lyrical about Ernest Hemingway to anybody who will listen, John is losing his battle with dementia and Ella, who is fighting her own terminal diagnosis, is determined to visit Hemingway’s house in Key West while John is still able to appreciate the experience. In addition to managing her own illness, Ella is faced with the somewhat difficult task of keeping John in check, which becomes increasingly difficult as the trip progresses. John’s cognitive degeneration delivers humour and heartbreak in equal measure as Ella bears witness to the love of her life unable to recognise her at times. In one scene, John mistakes Ella for somebody else and reveals a secret from the past that threatens to leave their life-long love affair in tatters. Whilst there are several moments such as this where John’s illness causes great distress, there are just as many in which he revels in experiences he would have once shunned, simply because he doesn’t remember any of the biases that once dictated his beliefs and behaviours. Some may squirm at the thought of finding John’s befuddlements amusing and it is uncomfortable to see somebody struggling to undertake even the simplest task, but the reality is that some of the situations are genuinely funny.
In what is very much a two-hander, both Mirren and Sutherland are terrific and they are convincing in capturing the chemistry between a couple whose love for each other has never waned and are determined to live out their days together. Of course, the inevitability of their diagnoses means that there is no possible way that this story can deliver a happy ending, in any traditional sense at least, but the final moments of the film only serve to reaffirm the unwavering love the couple share. There are some elements of the film that don’t work particularly well, such as a roadside robbery that is somewhat clunky in its execution and doesn’t deliver the laughs that were perhaps intended. The characterisation of Will is also somewhat troubling in that we are seemingly expected to accept his whiny, neurotic, needy persona as a consequence of the fact that he might be gay, not-so-subtle hints about which are dropped as Ella and John revisit their shared history through a series of slideshows.
Whilst shot in the United States (obviously) and accompanied by a retro soundtrack of American classics from the likes of Carole King, Iggy pop and Janis Joplin among others, there is very much a European sensibility about the The Leisure Seeker and it is not surprising to discover that Verzi has teamed up with the Italy-based Indiana Production Company, with whom he has worked previously on Human Capital (2013) and Like Crazy (2016). Together, they have created an amusing yet poignant tale of two people determined to live, love and die on their own terms.