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'Leisure Seeker': Helen Mirren's Alzheimer's Road Movie

The film is flawed but the stars make it a moving portrait of a marriage

Rating: R

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Run time: 1 hour 52 minutes

Stars: Helen Mirren, Donald Sutherland

Director: Paolo Virzì

In real life, Helen Mirren is a terrific driver disappointed that she didn’t get to do her own stunts in The Fate of the Furious — she once beat Kristen Scott Thomas and Brian Cox on the racetrack-competition show Top Gear. But in The Leisure Seeker, she’s a Southern belle who lets her husband (Donald Sutherland) take the wheel because he’s the ace driver in the family, as well as an English professor emeritus who loves Hemingway almost as much as he does his missus.

spinner image Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren in leisure seeker
Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren star as a husband and wife in "Leisure Seeker." For the two, it's a reunion of sorts — they played a couple in another film nearly 30 years ago.

He has Alzheimer’s and she has cancer, as we gather from her awful wig and whiskey-and-painkillers regimen. So she packs him into the 1975 Winnebago they had dubbed the "Leisure Seeker,” grabs her pills and a shotgun, and lights out from Massachusetts for a last, loving road trip to the Hemingway Home & Museum. He periodically forgets where he is, who his wife is, and the very word “wife,” but he can still rattle off reams of literature for the edification of a waitress. And he can still drive, though sometimes he weaves, attracting cops.

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Mirren and Sutherland have chemistry even better than the last time they played a couple (1990’s Bethune: The Making of a Hero), and the teasing fondness the pair exhibit on their publicity tour for the film spills over into their roles. It seems like they’ve been together so long they’ve fused into one soul, half of which is evaporating. When they stop at campgrounds, she hangs up a sheet outside the van and projects their home movies to jog his receding memory. Other campers watch too, warming themselves around the fire of a half-century romance. Some of the memories involve infidelity, so it’s about both love and pain, not just sentimental wish-fulfillment fantasy.

This setup sounds as promising as road-trip hits like About SchmidtNebraska or Little Miss Sunshine, and the actors’ sky-high accomplishment makes us hope for a late-life love tale like the Jane Fonda-Robert Redford Our Souls at Night or the Sam Elliott-Blythe Danner I’ll See You in My Dreams.

Sadly, it’s many cuts below all of the above, because in his first American film, rising Italian director Paolo Virzì makes lots of mistakes. His odd blend of comedy and pathos erodes emotional realism at points, and he was better at adapting an American story into a critique of Italian society in Human Capital than he is at critiquing America in The Leisure Seeker. He doesn’t seem to understand America, though he sure knows how to make it look beautiful onscreen. When the professor wanders into a Trump rally and starts chanting excitedly, forgetting that he’s a liberal Massachusetts college prof, it’s meaningless, as is a glimpse of a Clinton rally. Most of the folks the couple encounter are contrivances: puzzled cops, a motorcyclist who helps her catch up with her husband when he absentmindedly drives off in the Leisure Seeker, and thugs who don’t realize how handy an old gal can be with a shotgun. The couple’s adult children, fretting about their risky trip and wondering where they’ve gone, add nothing to the plot or the drama.

spinner image Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren in leisure seeker
Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland play Ella and John Spencer in "Leisure Seeker," and set out on a road trip despite their medical conditions.

And yet, despite its low Rotten Tomatoes score, the film was nominated for the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and earned Mirren her 13th Golden Globe nomination. That’s because there’s more to it than gaffes, gimmicks and a wobbly tone. If you want grownup viewers to identify with characters whose road-trip soundtrack is Carole King’s It’s Too Late and Janis Joplin’s Me and Bobby McGee, you need generational icons on a par with them — and Mirren, 72, and Sutherland, 82, qualify. This isn’t the first time they’ve sold lines — some of which could’ve been written better, and genuinely moving scenes outnumber gimmicky ones.

Though the tone is worlds away from great, melancholy Alzheimer’s performances like those of Julianne Moore in Still Alice and Julie Christie in Away From Her, the film still nails the experience of the illness, the bewildering fluctuations from extreme confusion to lucidity and back in a flash, and its impact on a spouse. Mirren’s belle is ever chipperand chatty, but we feel the terror her jauntiness keeps at bay, and the full force of her courage. Sutherland is great in a narrower range, conveying the guy’s old personality shining through between bouts of panicked confusion or clueless contentment. He was a kind, thoughtful guy, as we see when he urges the hoodlums who assault them to consider night school — it might turn their lives right around.

In perhaps the most poignant scene, he encounters a long-ago student, and his wife tries to explain that he can’t remember her anymore. Yet he does, and precise memories pour out. Mirren’s character is startled, pleased, and also hurt — he remembers a student, but forgets his own family? When marital romance reblossoms one splurgy night at a fancy hotel, one minute they’re dancing wildly to Donna Summer, and the next … well, they never know when sorrow or death will strike, just that it will.

The main reason to see The Leisure Seeker is the same reason Mirren chose to make it: her character, she has said, “is not someone withdrawing from life. This is someone rushing headlong into life.” Also, Mirren has always wanted to make an Italian movie. So she rushed headlong into a memorable performance.

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