Saturday movie review: The Leisure Seeker

As of today, my husband and I have officially been together thirty-seven years. Which means we have much in common with longtime married couple John and Ella Spencer whose late-life road adventure is told in the comedic drama THE LEISURE SEEKER.

Unlike John and Ella Spencer, though, my husband and I don't own an RV in which we could make an impromptu — and mildly madcap — getaway from our grown kids. Also unlike the Spencers, we Carpenters are thankfully not facing the effects of Alzheimer's and its devastating effects on even the most dedicated marriage partners and their future.


Despite those differences between us and them, my husband and I were thoroughly captivated by THE LEISURE SEEKER. As we watched, we alternated between chuckling at scenes of domestic bliss and bickering similar to many scenes from our own marriage and choking up at poignant moments we fear may be ahead for us but fervently hope won't come.

THE LEISURE SEEKER stars Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren as John and Ella Spencer. John, a former high-school English teacher, is an avid fan of literature who continually recites from memory passages from his favorite authors. Yet he's losing memories of his family, his times with his wife, even at times the names of their adult son Will (Christian McKay), adult daughter Jane (Janel Moloney) and their grandchildren.

As John's lapses become longer and more frequent, Ella — a vivacious chatterbox who relishes socializing with friends, family, strangers — decides she and John must take one last road trip together in the '75 Winnebago Indian they named The Leisure Seeker and used to transport the entire Spencer family on many road adventures when the kids were young.

Ella — caretaker for John while quietly enduring her own health challenges — keeps the plan secret from John as well as from their well-meaning but overbearing adult son and daughter. Even once Will and Jane realize their parents have made a potentially dangerous getaway, Ella keeps their whereabouts under wraps as she and John travel south from Boston to The Earnest Hemingway Home in Key West, Florida, a longtime dream destination for John. 

Donald Sutherland is heartrendingly believable as an academic clinging to the written words he's adored all his life. More often than not, he seems oblivious to the gravity of his state, but in those moments of clarity, those brief times he's "John" again, he reveals to Ella how painfully aware he truly is of what he's lost. In many scenes, Sutherland masterfully expresses in his face alone, sans dialogue, the fear and dismay one imagines those with Alzheimer's must feel at times. A brilliant performance.

Helen Mirren adeptly portrays a loving wife thrust into the role of caretaker, a role that naturally includes moments of frustration, anger, despair. Mirren received a Golden Globe nomination for "Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy" for her amazing performance showcasing the challenges and charms of growing older with the one you love.

Though the situation may be grave for John and Ella, their lives and relationship are joyous, loving, filled with humorous moments, and the film's overall tone reflects that. The couple's adventurous — and amorous — attitude prevails over the pain and panic regarding what lies ahead for them. Their delight in one another and their life together despite their current circumstances serves as the primary focus of THE LEISURE SEEKER, preventing it from plunging into the pity party territory typical of films with lesser performances.

Director Paolo Virzì maintains a positive tone throughout THE LEISURE SEEKER, creating a witty and warmhearted road trip film featuring older folks — a genre that undeniably resonates with older film-loving folks like my husband and myself.

Perfectly cast Sutherland and Mirren talk with Hoda Kotb of The Today Show about their experience making THE LEISURE SEEKER.

THE LEISURE SEEKER (Rated R for "some sexual material") premiered at — and wowed — various film festivals in 2017 and opened at theaters across the U.S. yesterday, March 9, 2018. For more on the endearing film, visit the film's official website.

Disclosure: I screened this film courtesy a free screener link from Sony Pictures Classics; all opinions are my own.