AFI Fest Review: ‘The Leisure Seeker’ Wanders Down a Delightful Path


Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland are charming and sweet in “The Leisure Seeker” from Sony Pictures Classics.

The mostly formulaic road trip drama tells the story of an elderly couple, Ella (Mirren) and John (Sutherland). Without warning their adult children, Ella and John hop in their 1975 Winnebago Indian (The Leisure Seeker), intent on traveling from their home in Massachusetts down to the Ernest Hemingway house in Key West, Florida. Complicating the trip are Ella’s illness and John’s Alzheimer’s Disease. Their kids Jane (Janel Maloney) and Will (Christian McKay) are desperate to get their parents back home safely. But Ella is determined and John’s just along for the ride.

The trip is fettered with the usual road trip issues, like flat tires and bickering, and John accidentally leaving Ella behind at a gas station. As John’s Alzheimer’s advances and Ella’s health declines, the situation, which starts out funny and cute, takes a turn toward the more dramatic.

But this isn’t a depressing drama in the vein of “Still Alice,” which earned an Academy Award for Julianne Moore. And, thankfully, it isn’t the highly problematic “Away From Her,” either. Instead, “The Leisure Seeker” takes a more light-hearted approach to how Alzheimer’s Disease is portrayed. The light-hearted tone sometimes crosses over into comedy territory. There are moments that are very funny, and others that are definitely not.

Donald Sutherland is convincing as the playfully forgetful academic. At times he is lucid, fully aware of what he’s doing and where they are, and even that he is losing himself. Those moments are mingled with times of realization. John, a retired English teacher who loves to talk about Hemingway and Hawthorne and Melville, sadly admits that he can no longer focus long enough to read a sentence in a book. He gets easily confused and often forgets what he’s saying mid-sentence. For anyone who has experienced Alzheimer’s closely, Sutherland’s performance is real and natural. It may not be enough to put him into an Academy Award nomination, but it is a performance that deserves praise.

Likewise, Helen Mirren is a perfect complement to Sutherland. She vacillates between caring and exasperated but is clearly a woman who has loved this man for 50 years. Mirren is always a joy to watch onscreen, and that applies here, too. Mirren is funny and sad and a joy to watch onscreen.

In addition to the leading performances, the film takes the audience on a journey through beautiful landscapes. Driving along the eastern coast, John and Ella stop to set up camp each night in a different place. Forests, beaches, all of the terrain the east has to offer. And this is punctuated by a lovely original score from Carlo Virzi.

One problem with the film is that it’s never quite sure what to do with Janel Maloney and Christian McKay. Will is the younger of the two and harbors bitterness from being the primary caretaker for his ailing parents. Jane, meanwhile, lives two hours away with her husband and kids and receives the brunt of Will’s resentment. The two would be fine, and could even be interesting, except that they aren’t given much to do. The two are relegated, oddly, to the “wife on the phone” treatment. Will continues to beg his mom for their location, but Jane decides they should do whatever they want. And when the two have an argument about how to handle Mom and Dad, it teeters toward something good. But, instead of going for a nuanced discussion, the scene ends and we return to Ella and John, never to mention that sibling argument again.

The other problem facing the film is that it just relies too heavily on tried-and-true formulas. The sequence of events is little more than a checklist, making it wholly predictable.

But those leading performances are just so delightful, there are times the anticipation of the next scene is actually a good thing.

This is not a perfect film. But it is an easy film to enjoy, starring people you already love. And having a personal connection to Alzheimer’s only heightens the pleasant nostalgia of it all. It is worth watching for anyone who isn’t averse to sentimentality.

“The Leisure Seeker” is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics and will be opening nationwide Jan. 18, 2018.

GRADE: (★★★)

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