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'The Leisure Seeker': Two for the Road

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires Film Critic
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If you are of a certain age, which I am, then director Paolo Virzi's "The Leisure Seeker" is certain to resonate anywhere from sentimentally positive to depressingly negative, depending of course on how you view the last few chapters of the life experience. It is not an easy subject, especially in these overindulged times when even the closing of a favorite restaurant is reason enough for extended mourning. 
 
Shrouded in mystery, hope, despair and every other word the poets have employed to describe the inevitable, it is, along with love, the ultimate inscrutability.
 
We don't even like to say it: Old Age. There, I did it. Yet the realization that it is nigh, as corroborated by Virzi's heartfelt if not ingeniously edifying exploration, is as important to the survival instinct as any other adaptation we make along life's path. Offering us a vicarious trial run into this great unknown are John and Ella Spencer, a couple who epitomize Dylan Thomas' exhortation that one should "not go gentle into that good night." Without telling their two children what they're up to, they decide to celebrate their geriatric anxiety with a road trip.
 
Etched with bittersweet affection by Donald Sutherland, John is a former English professor stricken with an undefined dementia that has him swinging from completely out of touch to moments of literary eloquence. But his wife, Ella, played with Southern belle charm and country wisdom by Helen Mirren, is nonetheless certain that her knight in shining armor is fully capable of wheeling their antique RV, christened The Leisure Seeker. We're convinced they're deeply dedicated, a thespic triumph that buoys the drama when other elements don't quite ring true.
 
Granted, to take the edge off the implication of any stagecraft dealing with the euphemistically labeled Golden Years, it is common practice to slap a happy face onto the tale. The extreme example would be "Going in Style," both the 1979 and 2017 versions, wherein wily oldsters prove their capacity at le joie de vivre by planning a bank heist. It is farcically optimistic in its anomaly. Whereas "The Leisure Seeker," choosing the philosophical approach to ameliorate the grim, seeks to emulate the jewels of wisdom found in "On Golden Pond" (1981).
 
Still, there is a virtuousness in the attempt to be meaningful, elucidative and helpful, heightened in value by what the screenplay based on the novel by Michael Zadoorian says not only about Father Time, but about enduring love. Unfortunately, with no great epiphany to organically pull us into its mission, the script almost apologetically trots out many of the usual road movie clichés to spirit things along. 
 
There's the confrontation with contemporary highwaymen, a run-in with the cops, a visit to an old beau, and other encounters meant to display Ella and John's pluck. But far more egregious than these default plot evolvers is a serious, surprise divulgence about the lovebirds' relationship ... a mechanism that mistakes causticity for realism. Now, perhaps it's just me wishing to see the couple as unimpeachably good. You do get to like them. Yet suddenly plopped into our midst is a deus ex machina of deceit regarding John, obviously meant to stir some discord and thicken the stew. Admittedly, we don't know what the professor was like with all his faculties ... ahem. However, the fact that nothing revealed about his character thus far would support such an indictment makes the out-of-the-blue allegation seem artificial.
 
On the less weighty side, there are spates of that joyful, reckless abandon generally attributed to older folks less constricted by past proprieties and convention. It's the kind of second childhood nose-thumbing that made Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau so grouchily irresistible in "Grumpy Old Men" (1993).
 
While mostly the stuff of wishful thinking, it holds that the consolation in the autumn of our years is a brief brush with free will. For those who might remember, the extreme example was Gertrude Hoffman's octogenarian mischief maker/chief confidante, Mrs. Odets, whose cheerily zany nudging made sure that "My Little Margie" (Gale Storm) enjoyed her youth to the fullest.
 
It's a nice conceit. But even director Virzi knows these comic respites for what they are, tacitly acknowledging that anything short of success by Ponce de Leon cannot solve the big conundrum.
 
To use a phrase coined by a dude I knew in the late 1960s, this movie could bum you out. That is, unless you are able to take the philosophical approach. Indeed, there are sweetly emotional nuggets of nostalgia to be gleaned from the bitter chaff if one can extend their suspension of disbelief beyond the film's borders and into their own lives. All of which requires hopping aboard "The Leisure Seeker," driving off into the sunset and never asking for whom its horn honks.
 
"The Leisure Seeker," rated R, is a Sony Pictures Classics release directed by Paolo Virzi and stars Helen Mirren, Donald Sutherland and Christian McKay. Running time: 112 minutes

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