A bittersweet reflection on old age, held afloat by stellar performances.
We’re not getting any younger, as the saying goes, and for die-hard baby boomers reaching post-retirement, that is a hard pill to swallow. In The Leisure Seeker, acclaimed Italian director Paolo Virzí shows aging in all its denial and discomfort, finding the humor and hope in tough topics. And in spite of it all, it’s there.
Making his first English-language film, Virzí creates a sensitive, tragicomically evocative portrait of golden-year defiance out of the bestselling novel by Michael Zadoorian.
John Spencer (Donald Sutherland), a retired Ivy League English professor and his wife Ella (Helen Mirren) have been happily married for most of their life, but his mind is fading fast due to age-related memory loss. With time running out, Ella decides to defy their children’s plans to put them in a nursing home and embarks with her husband on a long-overdue road trip in their vintage Winnebago (the titular Leisure Seeker) from their Massachusetts home to the Hemingway House in Key West, hoping to create a few final pleasant memories while they still can.
Treating serious conditions comedically is wrought with peril, but The Leisure Seeker walks the double tightrope between both maudlin and emotional and humorous and inane with confidence, taking great pains to never make light of its protagonists, only of the situations in which they find themselves. Helen Mirren as the tough, strong-willed Ella Spencer delivers a predictably standout performance, but it’s Donald Sutherland as her dementia-riddled husband who steals the show: capable of going from a lucid, brilliant intellectual to a befuddled, petulant child in the blink of an eye, he gives an acting master class while delivering deadpan humor that wouldn’t work in the hands of a lesser actor.
As in all road movies, the landscape plays a prominent role, both physical and societal; as the Spencers traverse the east coast, they encounter both natural beauty and life in 21st century America. While at times this can feel forced – Donald Sutherland’s character gleefully joins a Trump rally until pulled aside and reminded he’s a lifelong democrat who worked on Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign – it often carries unexpected poignancy, particularly when showing society’s consistent condescension and belittlement of the elderly. Whether it’s their well-meaning children or restaurant staff, most people treat these senior citizens like oversized infants regardless of their personalities or actual conditions – a constant source of frustration and the impetus for the Spencer’s flight.
Ultimately though, The Leisure Seeker isn’t so much about modern times as it is about the twilight of the baby boomers; it’s not unlike Easy Rider, 50 odd years after the Summer of Love. While the Spencers and their Winnebago aren’t quite as rebellious as Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s iconic bikers (Sutherland’s character does have some throwback counterculture attitudes, with his wife warning him not to call a policeman “pig” or “fuzz” during a traffic stop), they too find themselves alienated from society in a country they barely recognize. And as the curtain inevitably draws on the postwar generation, the issue of how to treat aging boomers will remain relevant for years to come. At one point, Ella asks John what he thinks it’s like after death; he says nothing in response, staring out onto the open road and singing along to Janis Joplin on the radio: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Not everyone could join the 27 Club, but you can still go out like a rock star.