Like a mischievous bee, The Leisure Seeker has been generating some bad buzz—or, at the very least, some low review aggregator scores. But like a bee, the film is performing a small but necessary task, unglamorous though it may be. And if you’re wondering why I’m still talking about bees in a review of a film that contains zero actual bees, it’s because I’m afraid that when I tell you what The Leisure Seeker is—a film in which Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren play an elderly couple on a final road trip across the Eastern Seaboard—you’ll instinctively swat it away like (yep) a bee.
To be fair, The Leisure Seeker was always going to be a hard sell. Italian director Paolo Virzì’s movie isn’t overly precious about the realities of aging, so there’s a lot of gross old people stuff that I can’t imagine anyone is overly fond of. And both of its lead characters—Ella (Mirren), a preening, slightly dotty Southern belle, and John (Sutherland), a Hemingway-obsessed English teacher in the late stages of Alzheimer’s—initially come across as grating. To be fair, that’s how old people often are, but Virzì’s tin ear for naturalistic American dialogue certainly doesn’t help.
But stick with The Leisure Seeker and you’ll be rewarded with something special, as Mirren and Sutherland begin filling in the pieces of their characters’ lives—obliquely at first, then in foggy but affectionate reminiscences and teary revelations. We begin to see the complex course of their lives—as lovers, as parents, as friends, as spouses—through the dimming window of their failing memories and bodies. And remarkably, it’s not depressing—or, at least, it’s not as depressing as it might be, due to these characters’ rich, passionate, and flawed relationship. Their last trip is as much a celebration of that relationship as it is a conclusion to it.