The so-called “Marigold Effect” is still with us. After “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” became a hit in 2012, the term was coined to describe studios’ sudden willingness to finance twinkly comedy dramas for and about pensioners. And, if it weren’t for this effect, two comparable films at the Venice Festival probably wouldn’t exist. In the case of “Our Souls at Night”, that might not have been a great loss. But “The Leisure Seeker” is so rich, sparky, surprising and poignant that it justifies the trend singlehandedly.
Adapted from a novel by Michael Zadoorian, “The Leisure Seeker” is a road movie starring Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland as Ella and John, a couple that has been together for 50 happy years, but may not be together for much longer. John has dementia, so his children (Christian McKay and Janel Moloney) have arranged for him to move to residential care. Ella won’t stand for it. She packs John into their box-shaped vintage Winnebago – nicknamed the Leisure Seeker – and they head off for one last drive from Massachussets to Florida, leaving clouds of exhaust fumes and their exasperated offspring behind them.
In an early scene, Ella tells anyone who will listen that while her husband – a retired literature professor – is a “real Yankee”, she is from downhome South Carolina. I admit: I rolled my eyes at this point. The odd-couple dynamic seemed too contrived, what with John’s impromptu lectures on Hemingway, and Ella’s big, fake-looking hairdo. But then, a few scenes later, we see that Ella’s hair looks fake because it is fake: at night in the Winnebago, she removes her wig to reveal the cropped, thin white strands underneath. Not that this is presented as a heart-rending revelation. It’s just an honest indication of how Ella sees herself and how old she is.
Those details keep on accruing as the Winnebago rolls along. “The Leisure Seeker” is a funny, tender, sweetly romantic tale of a couple’s mild misadventures, their irritated spats and their fond reminiscences, but its director, Paolo Virzi, refuses to treat that couple as twee stereotypes. A dance in a hotel room is curtailed when Ella vomits on the carpet. A cuddle in the Winnebago’s fold-out bed ends when John wets himself. And for every one of his florid Hemingway lectures, there is another scene in which his lively face darkens and hollows out before our eyes, and the indomitable but exhausted Ella has to remind him what her name is and where they are. Again, though, the film doesn’t dwell on her suffering. What makes it so affecting is her no-nonsense determination to keep the holiday going.
“Our Souls at Night” doesn’t concern itself with health worries. It allows the audience to bask in the glowing chemistry between its two stars, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, four decades after they were in “The Chase” and “Barefoot in the Park”. But there is hardly a suggestion that they are any less spry now than they were back in their incandescently beautiful youth. They play widowed neighbours, Louis and Addie, who have never really spoken until one evening when she visits him with an indecent proposal: would he like to come over to her house and sleep with her? The request has nothing to do with sex, she insists: “I lost interest in all of that years ago.” She just wants a friend she can chat to in the small hours to keep loneliness at bay. No prizes for guessing whether Addie eventually decides that sex with the most handsome man of his generation might not be so uninteresting, after all. But before we get to that utterly discreet congress, the neighbours have gentle, supportive conversations about their pasts. Both of them are nagged by guilty secrets, it turns out. But “Our Souls at Night” is always as snugly comfortable as its characters’ pristine, lamp-lit, mortgage-free homes.
The film is also a nostalgic tribute to wholesome, Rockwellian small-town America. When Louis isn’t sitting in an armchair, doing the local newspaper’s crossword, he’s sitting in an independent diner with his trucker-and-cowboy-hatted buddies. And when he gets together with Addie, he spends his time teaching her grandson to throw a baseball, construct a train set, and whittle a stick so that he can toast marshmallows on a camp fire. Despite being made by an Indian director, Ritesh Batra, the film’s only concession to 21st-century multi-culturalism is the bizarre casting of Matthias Schoenaerts, a Belgian actor, as Addie’s son. Schoenaerts’s American accent is good, to be fair. It’s just not as good as that of absolutely any American actor who might have been cast instead.
“The Leisure Seeker” – directed by an Italian, incidentally – travels through a more authentic modern America. It’s a paean to the country’s scenic highways and byways, but it’s also aware of its commercialism and crime and its recent socio-political ructions. Like the characters, America itself is shown to have more layers than we initially see. Indeed, the film is destined to be catalogued as a significant snapshot of today’s USA. In one scene, the characters wander into a Trump presidential rally, making it the first ever feature film to include the “Make America Great Again” movement in its narrative. There is also a cameo by Dick Gregory, making it the last ever feature film to include the comedian and civil-rights activist who died in August.
With any luck, “The Leisure Seeker” will be a landmark in another way. Sutherland is being given an honorary Oscar at the next Academy Award ceremony, and rightly so. But, on the strength of his latest performance, the 82-year-old deserves to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, too.