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EDINBURGH – Elliott Gould finds a middlingly serviceable late-career vehicle in Fred, a fussily over-directed study of old age and its impact on younger family members. Despite the title this is by no means a one-man show, rather a even-handed small ensembler in which Gould is only narrowly first among equals and therefore may not attract the sort of awards attention which might be necessary to lift it out of the general run of U.S. independents. Its ever-topical and fundamentally serious subject-matter, plus septuagenarian Gould’s brand of affably distrait charisma, could ensure further festival bookings after a lowish-key Edinburgh bow.
This is Gould’s second collaboration with writer-director Richard Ledes after 2008’s relatively little-seen The Caller co-starring Frank Langella – Ledes was previously responsible for 2004’s lobotomy-themed period piece A Hole In One, perhaps the most obscure entry in its star Michelle Williams‘ filmography. Mental health is again Ledes’ focus here, primarily via the character of Susan – an elderly lady whose motion and speech are severely impaired by Alzheimer’s Disease. Played by Judith Roberts, who in a previous life was the Beautiful Girl Across The Hall in David Lynch‘s Eraserhead, Susan is nominally cared for by her grouchy husband Fred (Gould), though the latter is also showing signs of physical and mental deterioration.
Fortunately live-in nurse’s aide Victoria (droll, scenestealing newcomer Mfoniso Udofia) is on hand to help out, but Fred and Susan’s grown-up children Bob (Fred Melamed) and Carol (Stephanie Roth Haberle) – their names presumably an in-joke reference to Gould’s 1969 smash Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice – now want their parents to relocate from leafy suburbia to an inner-city care-facility.
Fred is less than enamored with this proposal, resisting with an ox-like stubbornness which infuriates the testy Bob. The friction between father and son – strong personalities both – provides Fred with most of its comedy and drama, Melamed reveling in Bob’s thin-skinned arrogance. The actor doesn’t quite reach the excruciating heights of his phenomenal support turn in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, but Bob’s characterization is by some way the most vivid and effective element of Ledes’ overall design here – overcoming the fact that Melamed (who’s 56 and looks older) and Gould (who’s 74 and looks younger) would be more convincingly cast as siblings .
But while he hits several of his targets script-wise, Ledes the writer isn’t immune to affectation and contrivance – Fred and Susan’s precocious grand-daughter Lila (Ariana Altman), for example, is almost invariably referred to as ‘the Captain’, including in the closing credits. And it’s notable that Susan’s degree of lucidity comes and goes from scene to scene according to the screenplay’s requirements. As a director, meanwhile, Ledes is often his own worst enemy: for what’s in theory a delicate chamber-piece Fred is chock-full of gimmicky camerawork, attention-grabbing angles, slight drifts of focus, unnecessarily close close-ups and incongruous ‘flourishes’ of avant-gardery – most notably in a couple of fanciful dream-sequences.
And while editor Pete Street crafts an economic package at 70-odd minutes, he and Ledes allow one particular scene – a music-therapy singalong involving nearly the entire cast – to drag on near-interminably. Working with pungently-colored digital video that emphasizes the lush verdancy of Fred and Susan’s quiet – and quietly affluent neighborhood – cinematographer Valentina Caniglia finds plenty to explore in the bric-a-brac-cluttered house in which most of the film takes place. But too often her images succumb to a hand-held jitteriness that suggests the camera operator might perhaps share some degree of Judith’s affliction.
Venue: Edinburgh International Film Festival, June 25, 2012.
Production company: Footnote Four
Cast: Elliott Gould, Fred Melamed, Mfoniso Udofia, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Judith Roberts, Ariana Altman
Director / Screenwriter: Richard Ledes
Producer: Ged Dickersin
Director of photography: Valentina Caniglia
Production designer: Brian Rzepka
Costume designer: Tere Duncan
Music: Robert Miller
Editor: Pete Street
Sales Agent: Footnote Four, New York
No rating, 74 minutes.
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