An American road movie made by an Italian director with Canadian and British stars, “The Leisure Seeker” is a gentle but pointed lament for things that are lost and things that are fading, be they personal memories or a national sense of community.
The film, which premiered last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, takes director Paolo Virzi down the east coast of the U.S., as stars Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren drive a battered 1975 Winnebago (which she’s dubbed “the Leisure Seeker”) from their home in Massachusetts to Ernest Hemingway’s house in the Florida Keys.
It is in parts a light, amusing road trip even as it deals with heavy themes — Sutherland’s character, John, is suffering from dementia that finds him slipping between clarity and complete forgetfulness, while Mirren’s Elle has her own looming health problems.
For a while, those troubles are the nagging darkness underneath an enjoyable lark of a trip: John, a former college professor, regales a waitress with textual analysis of Hemingway, while Elle foils a stick-up attempt because, let’s face it, nobody messes with Helen Mirren.
But their nightly campground slide shows, which Elle uses to jog John’s memories, become more bittersweet and painful, and the inexorable sense of where this trip is heading grows more pronounced as the film progresses.
Sutherland, calibrating the degrees of dementia in a quietly wrenching performance, and Mirren, who wears a happy mask that never really hides the physical and mental anguish beneath, make this a touching personal story of a couple so close that they can’t even bear to check into a hotel room with twin beds.
But Virzi is after a bigger story, too: There’s a reason why the first thing we hear in the film is Carole King singing “It’s Too Late” (“something inside has died … and I just can’t fake it”) and the second thing is a radio broadcast of Donald Trump promising, “America is back.”
Well, no it’s not, at least not in “The Leisure Seeker.” This may not be as incisive a look at American society as Virzi’s “Human Capital” was about the state of Italy, but it’s an effective tale of how things are slipping away around us. Hemingway’s lair is now a party house, petty thieves use bad grammar and that big “Make America Great Again” rally only really sounds enticing if you’ve lost any sense of history.
Smartly, though, the big picture is really just a sidelight in “The Leisure Seeker.” The heart of Virzi’s film is the palpable bond between these two people (and these two gifted actors), and their journey through decades of memories, loves and regrets.