Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

End of the road


Donald Sutherland (John) and Helen Mirren (Ella) in director Paolo Virzi's "The Leisure Seeker." Photo: Sony Pictures Classics
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"I don't know if I'm a bitch or you're a son-of-a-bitch."

"I guess anything's possible."

This spicy exchange between a couple married 48 years, skillfully brought to life by film veterans Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland, illustrates the best reason to catch Italian director Paolo Virzi's American film debut "The Leisure Seeker." The title refers not to a person, but to the couple's battered but still roadworthy recreational vehicle (RV). Based on Michael Zadoorian's bestselling novel, "The Leisure Seeker" strays well beyond the conventional middle-class American rules of the road for end-of-life issues.

John (Sutherland) and Ella (Mirren) are both facing health crises: dementia in his case, cancer in hers. The plan is to gas up the RV and, before their fretful adult kids notice, hightail it down Route 1 from Massachusetts to Key West, FL, to visit the famous Ernest Hemingway house.

The movie, uneven but with some true grace notes between this fabulous duo, is essentially an account of longstanding relationship tensions and resentments that nearly crater the trip before the rubber hits the road. John is a retired English scholar and Hemingway expert who wooed Ella with a series of Cliff Notes, and has for nearly half-a-century ruled their mental roost with his prodigious memory for quoting the great books he has taught. In an amusing pit stop, John infuriates Ella by flirting with a now-married ex-student for whom he displays vastly more interest that he can muster for his wife.

John can barely remember his own name, and the literary flourishes, when they come, seem more bewildering than comforting. The four-writer screenplay is only so-so, giving relatively juicy turns to the leads while leaving the supporting cast with rather pedestrian sitcom-worthy material. Especially shortchanged is Christian McKay as the couple's mostly peevish son Will, who is left to pout and yell at his sister, "Daddy loved you more than me!"

The dramatic highpoint arrives in a botched car-jacking attempt by a young white-boy duo who dress and behave like refugees from an East Village punk band. Mirren's Ella comes bouncing out of the RV shotgun in hand, an off-kilter slice of melodrama from which the movie never quite recovers.

Having survived a riches-to-rags 50s family, I've made a hobby of watching domestic tales in search of characters who are sexier, smarter and capable of making even terminal fecklessness seem an admirable trait. From the heights of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night" to the antics of Lucy and Desi in "The Long, Long Trailer," I've observed the prison of marriage, whose inmates have drawn life without parole. In a kinder world, John and Ella would be allowed their final scenes in a one-act play in which the kids would appear only as amusing anecdotes.

But "The Leisure Seeker" is at its core a deeply serious portrait of a couple who have cast their fate to the kindness of strangers. Anyone looking for more in a road comedy-drama should rent "Little Miss Sunshine."


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