Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland play the couple, a duo who go together like matching furniture, their moods and habits perfectly shaped by each other’s. Even their ailments are complementary, one suffering in body and the other in mind: Mirren’s character, Ella, is facing cancer, while Sutherland’s, John, is losing his memory and his certainty about who he’s speaking to and what year it is.
We know the year: 2016. Virzi opens with audio of a Donald Trump campaign speech, a stab of the very now that audiences for The Leisure Seeker likely are attempting to escape. Later, deep in the South, Sutherland’s character will lose himself in a #MAGA rally, chanting the chants without grasping their significance. He’s a former professor of literature, a lifelong Democrat who just gets caught up in the moment without recognizing the foulness of the anti-immigrant fervor. Ella spirits him away, knowing better than him sometimes what the mind she’s loved for so long values and deplores.
She’s spent her life listening to him rattle on about Herman Melville and Ernest Hemingway, and she’s planned this trip to show him his favorite author’s famous home in Key West. She lets him drive — he’s alert behind the wheel — but she’s fully in charge, except in those moments when he wanders off. Sometimes Virzi plays this for comedy, but there’s terror in these scenes, a species-level discomfort related to our distaste for convincing scenes of children in danger. If John gets lost, he could be lost for good. Ella, meanwhile, is off her meds and occasionally vomits. All logic tells you that this trip can’t end well, and Virzi establishes by the midpoint that working in the States has not made him sentimental. The final scenes feature a welcome sexual frankness you probably would not note on that list of what The Leisure Seeker will offer, and the ending — well, I misted up. (I did twice during the film, at the end credits and during a scene of the couple screening a slideshow of their past on a sheet hung up in an RV park. Both times I felt satisfied rather than worked over.)
The drama at first concerns the couples’ incidental bickering, his jealousies over her long-gone first boyfriend and her frustration at his failing memory, especially the way he can remember beautiful students of decades back but struggles to identify his own children. It’s not always convincing, with a scene in which John mistakes Ella for another woman too much to swallow, and some of the jokes don’t land. It hurts, a little, to see actors of the stature of Mirren and Sutherland play scenes accusing each other of farting. But the performers are always lively, often engaging and sometimes moving, worth our contemplation even when the script flags. (It’s based on a novel by Michael Zadoorian.) They peak as the material edges toward melodrama, grounding the big emotions in an unflashy matter-of-factness. But even when The Leisure Seeker dips into wheezing comedy, there’s fun to be had in pondering Mirren’s South Carolina accent, which fades in and out like an unsteady radio signal.