Greetings again from the darkness. Getting older is often used as comedy fodder for entertainment purposes; however, there is fine line that can be crossed into disrespect and melancholy. Long time Italian director Paolo Virzi (HUMAN CAPITAL, 2013) delivers his first English-language film, and it’s at times quite uncomfortable to watch. Marketed as a dramatic-comedy road trip by a long married couple, the film provides a few laughs, but an overwhelming pall of sadness mostly sets the tone, while sliding right into my category of Gray Cinema.
Helen Mirren is Ella Spencer, and Donald Sutherland is her husband John. They are a happily married couple who, to the shock of their grown children and neighbor, hit the road in their 1970’s era Winnebago. Isn’t it interesting that an RV of age is considered “classic”, while old people are just referred to as “old”? John is a curmudgeonly former Professor and Helen is a gregarious, adventuresome woman who fondly recalls the many family trips in this same RV. She is clearly the one in charge, and has planned this road trip from their upscale Wellesley, Massachusetts home to Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West.
Although John recites his favorite passages from Hemingway and Melville, he is certainly battling the effects of dementia … a battle that frequently has a negative impact on Ella’s enjoyment of their time together. While he may recall details of a long-ago student, he often forgets the names of his own kids – or even his wife! While John’s mental state is causing emotional pain for Ella, it’s her own untreated cancer that is driving her body to fail her. They are each slipping away in different ways, though their paths lead to the same destination.
Based on the novel from Michael Zadoorian, four different writers worked on the screenplay, and that is likely the cause of the distorted tone and approach. It’s quite difficult to be funny when the moments are so poignant and sad. There is even a political undercurrent which is teased, but carries no heft or substance. Taking place during the most recent Presidential campaign, Trump rallies are used as punchlines, and a Hillary rally is inferred. Neither have any impact, though a sequence involving a roadside robbery ends with (unintended?) support of carrying a gun, even if it was an odd attempt at humor.
Janel Moloney and Christian McKay are little more than caricatures as the grown kids, while we do get to see Dick Gregory’s final on screen appearance (he passed away last year). Carole King and Janis Joplin songs are put to obvious use, and there aren’t enough “Happy Swirls” in the world to overcome the inherent fear that most aging folks have towards a failing body or mind … and this film shows both sides, while attempting to inject humor on that one last road trip that most of us dread.