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‘Leisure Seeker’ wastes top acting talent

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Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland are a couple on an uninspired road trip in “The Leisure Seeker.” (Courtesy Daniel C. McFadden/Sony Pictures Classics)

Directed by Paolo Virzi and starring Helen Mirren, Donald Sutherland and two debilitating illnesses, “The Leisure Seeker” is a road tale and a romantic end-of-life drama kept vital by its lead performances but hurt irreparably by contrived storytelling and tonal problems, those all too familiar culprits.

Virzi, who has made award-winning films about class, politics and regional character in Italy, tackles new ground in this adaptation of American author Michael Zadoorian’s 2009 novel, which the filmmaker has transported to the East Coast and set during the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign.

Ella (Mirren) and John (Sutherland), married for 50 years, have terminal cancer and dementia, respectively. Ella is a talky South Carolina belle in this version. John is a former English teacher who often forgets Ella’s name but can recite lengthy passages from classic novels.

Determined to enjoy one last vacation together, the pair escape from their Massachusetts home in their 1975 Winnebago. Ella has plotted their southward course. Destination: the Hemingway home, in Florida.

Along the way, with early-1970s rock hits unsubtly setting the tone (“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” sings Janis), the pair visit theme parks, diners and camping grounds, and Ella periodically phones their fretting adult children (Janel Moloney, Christian McKay).

Bumps occur on the road and in the couple’s marriage, prompted mostly by John’s condition. At a gas station, John takes off in the RV without Ella, for starters.

Virzi and his three cowriters appear to want the film to be both a realistic portrayal of aging and illness (“Away From Her” with a touch of “Amour”) and a feel-good geezer adventure. The approaches aren’t compatible. The movie’s clunky attempts to treat serious subjects comically result in artificial, unfunny material. The movie’s a rocky road.

Worst is a sequence in which John points a shotgun at Ella, accusing her of still loving an ex-beau she hasn’t seen in ages.

The sight of John, a lifelong Democrat, participating in a Trump rally, deluded and believing its hate-spouting participants to be friendly folk, should come across as terribly sad. Instead, it’s presented lightheartedly.

Virzi, whose road tale “Like Crazy” featured stirring character dynamics, yanks the characters from one cliched development to another here. Missing are the detours and oddball characters that give road tales quirk appeal. The trip is predictable from the beginning.

Mirren, once you get past the southern accent she’s been saddled with, and Sutherland, who portrays John’s dementia with texture and believability, are captivating when Virzi dispenses with contrivances and simply lets them interact.

Unfortunately, that happens too infrequently in this movie, whose characters, and the issues they bring to the picture, deserve material that is smarter and more emotionally truthful.

The Leisure Seeker
Two stars
Starring: Helen Mirren, Donald Sutherland, Janel Moloney, Christian McKay
Written by: Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi, Francesco Piccolo, Paolo Virzi
Directed by: Paolo Virzi
Rated R
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Note: The movie opens March 9 at Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco.

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