Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren are Ella and John Spencer in Paolo Virzì’s hilarious and moving Alzhaimer’s road trip movie. Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz are Pablo Escobar and Virginia Vallejo in Fernando León de Aranoa’s take on one of the most popular drug lord tales ever told. Ella & John: The Leisure Seeker and Loving Pablo are two unusual love stories with immensely talented cast members, but only one convincing pairing.
One of the perks of attending the Venice Film Festival is that not much is known about a film before you get to watch it. There are no reviews that might influence your judgement, no spoilers that could ruin the movie for you, sometimes it’s even difficult to find out what it will actually be about. There is something extremely refreshing about entering a screening knowing absolutely nothing about what you’re going to see. But there is also an awful lot of anticipation.
I had high expectations about both The Leisure Seeker and Loving Pablo, as there are certain names that immediately guarantee good quality acting, and their presence alone is enough to guarantee you’re going to enjoy the film. Donald “President Snow” Sutherland and Dame/ “Queen” Helen Mirren are two of them. Javier “007 super-villain” Bardem and Penélope “Vicky-Cristina-Barcelona” Cruz are two more.
Let’s start from Javier and Penélope, one of our favourite real-life couples to watch on screen. After the complex dynamics they showed us in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I was expecting Loving Pablo to display the same fire and passion. Or, at least, a few sparks. Glances that spoke more than words, of two people who are used to being around each other and whose acting also merges with the real affection they feel for one another. Needless to say, this was not the case.
I don’t blame Penélope and Javier for their absence of chemistry in Loving Pablo – in fact, it’s quite the contrary: I blame pretty much everything else. Their lack of screen time together, the poorly written script, the unconvincing characters that didn’t even stand on their own. The narrative that had no rhythm in a story that has been told a million times before. And, most of all, the way two Spanish actors taking on the role of two Colombians were forced to speak with the fakest possible “Colombian-sounding” English accent ever – purely for marketing reasons. At the end of the movie, I actually felt sorry for how actors of their calibre have been “wasted” so that the film could conform to what the director himself described as the “law of the market”.
If Loving Pablo was ruined by poor characterisation and odd maketing-driven choices, the same cannot be said of The Leisure Seeker (Ella & John), whose captivating narration and excellent script matched the incredible talent of its cast.
Taken from the novel by Michael Zadoorian with the same name, The Leisure Seeker is the story of the Spencers, an elderly couple with physical and mental health issues, embarking on a road-trip through America on board of their RV – “The Leisure Seeker” – in order to escape being put in a home for medical care, and spend the rest of their time together. The film has been adacted for the screen with the perfect mix of sentimentality and humour, intertwining moments for serious reflection with lough-oud-loud sequences and unexpected turns. The result is a bold, convincing story of courage and resilience that is all but predictable, and moves and entertains exactly in the right measure and right up till the very end.
Needless to say, Donald Sutherland and Dame Helen Mirren are outstanding. Their seemlessly effortless portrayal of Ella and John Spencer makes it look as if they had been inhabiting these characters’ bodies and minds all their lives. Their incredible presence on and off screen was perceived by the audience at Venice, and the heartfelt, well-deserved standing ovation that followed the screening lasted for over 10 minutes.