Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Leisure Seeker’ and ‘Oh Lucy!’

Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren in ‘The Leisure Seeker’

Do you like road movies? If you do, Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas has a pair of them on offer beginning Friday, March 16th – and even if you’re not terribly keen on the genre, one of the films is still well worth your while.

We’ll start with the latter: The Leisure Seeker stars Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland as Ella and John Spencer, an elderly couple taking an ill-advised road trip in an ancient Winnebago RV. Their impulsive decision to hit the highway has left adult children Jane (Janel Moloney) and Will (Me and Orson Welles’ Christian McKay, here seemingly channeling the spirit of Paul Giamatti) deeply worried – neither Mom nor Dad is particularly well.

It’s not immediately obvious what’s ailing feisty southern belle Ella, but it soon becomes clear that John, a former university lecturer in English, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Though John experiences periods of clarity and can drive and quote Hemingway at length, he can also just as easily forget his whereabouts, the names of his children, and his political allegiances.

Following an old family vacation trail from Boston to Key West, the couple relive their younger days via campsite slide shows and experience a few unanticipated challenges along the way. Their trip is punctuated by occasional calls home from whatever still functional pay phones Ella finds on the roadside, as well as some increasingly serious medical emergencies which suggest the end of the story may not be a particularly happy one.

Based on a novel by Michael Zadoorian and adapted for the screen by director Paolo Virzi with a team of three others, The Leisure Seeker wisely and carefully avoids sloppy sentimentality, hyperbolic dramatic developments, and (despite its soundtrack of Carole King and Janis Joplin tunes) tiresome nostalgia. While those of us with first-hand experience of the deadly spell woven by Alzheimer’s will certainly feel pangs of recognition throughout the film, it’s as much a straightforward character study as a profound commentary on the terrible changes wrought by the disease.

Both very much still at the top of their game, Mirren and Sutherland happily take full advantage of this marvelous opportunity to showcase their skills. Add in a brief, bittersweet cameo by the late Dick Gregory, and you have a powerful and deeply humanistic film.

Shinobu Terajima in ‘Oh Lucy!’

Markedly less successful is Oh Lucy!, an American-Japanese co-production about a Tokyo woman (Shinobu Terajima) traveling to Los Angeles in search of her niece, who’s foolishly followed an American lover (Josh Hartnett, a long way from Pearl Harbor and Sin City) back to the States.

Director Atsuko Hitayanagi previously shot the same story in 2014 as a short subject, and she probably should have left well enough alone. While the short was notably successful on the festival circuit, the feature’s narrative lacks heft, playing out like a particularly disjointed American indie film of twenty or thirty years ago, its characters lacking the depth necessary to keep our interest over the course of ninety minutes. All in all, it’s a considerable disappointment.