Paolo Virzi’s “The Leisure Seeker” takes its title from a vintage Winnebago on the verge of collapse but technically still functioning.
The same could be said of its owners, Ella and John Spencer. John, played by Donald Sutherland, is sliding into something like dementia, although Ella, played by Helen Mirren, can still make decisions and lay plans. One day, Ella hauls out The Leisure Seeker and, after duct-taping the gaps where exhaust seeps in, takes John on a road trip to Key West, the onetime home of his favorite author, Ernest Hemingway.
On discovering the Spencers gone, Will (Christian McKay), their grown son, freaks out. That’s understandable. Anyone who’s wrestled with the idea of growing old — and anyone familiar with the term “foreshadowing” — can see how this ill-advised vacation might end.
On the spectrum of films about the travails of old age, “The Leisure Seeker” is closer to a light comedy like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” than a bleak rumination like Michael Haneke’s “Amour.” The problem is that director and co-writer Virzi wants to have it both ways, mixing breezy humor with moments of painful realism and poignancy. If any two actors could carry that off, it would be Mirren and Sutherland, both blessed with high intelligence and exquisite dramatic timing. “The Leisure Seeker,” however, doesn’t give them nearly enough to work with.
Based on a novel by Michael Zadoorian, “The Leisure Seeker” takes the easy road in terms of character and detail. John, an English professor, talks endlessly about Hemingway but doesn’t tell us much about that famous literary icon except that his writing was beautiful. Ella falls into the ever-endearing “feisty” category. On their journey they meet a variety of types, but none is terribly colorful. (Even the obligatory bikers and hoodlums come off as bland.) When one of the Spencers reveals a secret near the film’s end, it has little impact because we barely know the third party involved.
The film has some pretty moments, as when the Spencers hang a bedsheet near their campground and watch slides of their past. Even that, though, feels emblematic of “The Leisure Seeker” as a whole: sentimental, but not exactly meaningful.