There have been great movies about Alzheimer's. The Leisure Seeker isn't one

by Peter Calder / 22 June, 2018

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Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren hit the road in creaky comedy The Leisure Seeker.

Old folks on the road: what would go wrong? Well, not enough to make a good comedy, and too little too late to make the kind of meaningful impact this movie strives for.

Donald Sutherland, 82, and Helen Mirren, 72, play Bostonians John and Ella Spencer, who, to the horror of their anxious adult kids, hit the road in their 1975 Winnebago motorhome. Their destination – well, hers really; we gather early on that he is in the intermittent but firm grip of Alzheimer’s disease – is one of Ernest Hemingway’s former homes, a museum in Key West.

It’s a pilgrimage of sorts; John has spent his life as an English teacher with a special interest in Hemingway (his learned lectures to waitresses make a running gag with a good payoff).

The film wants to be a comic road movie, but the comedy is creaky at best and the storyline is a string of ideas that go nowhere. The couple get pulled over by a cop and nothing happens; on one of their nightly campsite slide shows of family snaps, designed to jog John’s memory, they are joined by a bunch of young people and nothing happens; in occasional phone calls home, we see the kids (Christian McKay and Janel Moloney), and often enough for them to be irritating but not long enough for them to develop any discernible character. Most obscurely, several moments depict the pro-Trump frenzy in the 2016 election campaign, though to what end those scenes are included is never clear. The fact that the movie is an Italian, not American, production may have something to do with it.

The ending is signalled early, if enigmatically, and it doesn’t give much away to say that it speaks, at least glancingly, to the present debate about assisted dying. But despite the best efforts of two screen titans, it seeks to draw on emotional capital it has never banked: the final 10 minutes might have been heart-wrenching, but the mix of formulaic seriousness and ramshackle comedy just never adds up to much. There have been great films about Alzheimer’s (Still Alice; Away from Her). This is not another one.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★1/2

This article was first published in the June 23, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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