Fans of the regal Helen Mirren just might spit out their Milk Duds when she makes her first entrance rocking a pink visor cap and chatterbox Southern drawl. Here, she’s playing a different kind of queen – queen of the road, tootling down the highway with her dementia-addled husband (Sutherland) in their monstrously sized, fumes-belching Winnebago dubbed “The Leisure Seeker.”
Five decades into their mostly happy marriage, Ella and John are on the lam. On the eve of a surgery (undisclosed to the audience, but all signs point to cancer), Ella has hurried John away from their helicoptering kids (Moloney and McKay) and home in Wellesley, Mass., where John was once a professor of literature, and into their beloved RV for a last trip, destination Key West, to see the house of John’s hero, Ernest Hemingway.
The journey deviates from that of Michael Zadoorian’s 2009 novel of the same name, which charted a less romantic path from Detroit to Disneyland, in one of several liberties Italian writer-director Paolo Virzì, in his English-language debut, takes with the source material. There is also a timid swipe at topicality with the insertion of a couple of Trump references that bears no fruit.
Ella and John’s trip is dotted with mishaps both minor and major – a run-in with the law, an attempted highway robbery – that rarely rise dramatically beyond the level of light shenanigans, in part because the itinerant cast of supporting characters is so vaguely sketched. The landscape may change as Ella and John head south, but there’s no ring of authenticity to the people they meet, and little geographic specificity to the places they stop.
Oh, but Mirren and Sutherland are dynamos. Acting together for the first time since 1990’s Bethune: The Making of a Hero, they convincingly evince the tenderness and exasperation and shorthand communication of a long-married couple, and also deliver a rounded sense of John and Ella as individuals – the injustice of his essential self being stolen from him, as his bursts of lucidity grow further and further apart; her quiet rage at the aging body’s many betrayals. They give potent and particular performances, bright buoys at sea in an otherwise nondescript picture.
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