'Elsa & Fred': Film Review

Elsa And Fred Still - H 2014
Courtesy of SIFF

Elsa And Fred Still - H 2014

A cutesy, cringey seniors-in-love rom-com

Michael Radford adapts a 2005 Spanish-Argentinian film about senior citizens who begin dating, with Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer in the title roles

It’s so exceedingly rare to see octogenarians on the big screen — Amour is a notable recent exception — that one is tempted to be patient with Elsa & Fred, Michael Radford’s remake of a 2005 Spanish-Argentinian film, Elsa y Fred, about two senior citizens who begin dating.

But patience has its limits.

Despite the presence of Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer, both sprightly and appealing in the lead roles, this misfire of a cornball romance is so tone-deaf, so utterly lacking in screwball snap and visual punch, that viewers will find it hard to care whether or not the aging lovebirds end up in each other’s arms.

Elsa & Fred comes just a few months after Rob Reiner’s And So It Goes, in which Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton engaged in some of the most witless banter this side of Gigli; it’s been a rough year for the 65-and-over rom-com.

Radford (Il Postino, The Merchant of Venice) and co-screenwriter Anna Pavignano have transplanted the story from Madrid to New Orleans, but other than that, it’s essentially a scene-for-scene adaptation of the original. Plummer plays Fred, a grumpy widower who wants to be left alone. MacLaine is Elsa, a sassy, whimsical spitfire who may also be a compulsive liar. He moves in next door and they almost instantly dislike one another, but she offers to show him the “path to life” (Step 1: walks in the park; Step 2: dance lessons; Step 3: dine and dash from overpriced restaurant) — a bizarre and somewhat creepy proposition that nonetheless proves effective: soon they’re head over heels.

Erratically shot and edited, full of dialogue that rarely rises above bad-sitcom level — of his son-in-law, played by Chris Noth, Fred says: “I like him as much a I like sciatic nerve pain” — and gags that don’t land, Elsa & Fred leans heavily on the charms of its central duo. The two (who previously appeared together in Richard Attenborough’s final film, 2007’s Closing the Ring) have a sweet, relaxed chemistry, and at its least inept, their new movie conjures a sense of two dormant lives stirring gently.

But the film smothers the pair with cutesy touches (Elsa is obsessed with Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, especially the iconic scene in which Anita Ekberg frolics in the Trevi Fountain), many of which are lifted directly from the original but register as even cringier in this Anglo version. Meanwhile, anyone looking for belly laughs will have to settle for the sight of MacLaine bopping along to rap while driving.

The movie unfolds in hopelessly rote fashion, ticking off boxes on the rom-com checklist: Elsa shakes Fred from his sulky stupor; Fred throws out meds and starts to, you know, live again; they slow dance, defend their love against uncomprehending children (namely Fred’s shrill daughter, played by Marcia Gay Harden) and confront health crises.

Most problematically, the relationship between Elsa and Fred makes little emotional sense. As played by MacLaine, her mischievously raised eyebrows and pursed mouth as vividly juxtaposed as ever, Elsa is initially so feisty and facetious that when she suddenly starts gushing over Fred it’s hard to tell if she’s serious. Similarly, Plummer’s evolution from crusty curmudgeon to love-drunk fool — one particularly humbling moment finds him linking arms with MacLaine and skipping down the street — feels abrupt and unpersuasive.

Radford has never been an ambitious stylist — the blocking here is clumsy, the frames uninspired — but he displayed a far defter touch with romantic material in his most famous movie, the slight Euro crowd-pleaser Il Postino, and even in his noirish oddity B. Monkey.  

A cloyingly springy score and a curiously retro New Orleans, in which the few people of color seen are a caregiver, a building superintendent and a shopkeeper (there’s a compensatory glimpse of President Obama on TV in the background), contribute to an overall aura of tackiness.

It’s hard to fault MacLaine and Plummer for signing on to Elsa & Fred; juicy roles for older actors are scarce (though their terrific turns in Richard Linklater’s Bernie and Mike MillsBeginners, respectively, were late-career high points). What a shame, though, that the indignities of old age in Hollywood include slumming in movies this mediocre.

Production companies: Cuatro Plus Films, Defiant Pictures, Creative Andina, Rio Negro, Riverside Entertainment Group, Media House Capital
Cast: Shirley MacLaine, Christopher Plummer, Marcia Gay Harden, Chris Noth, Scott Bakula, Erika Alexander, Jared Gilman
Director: Michael Radford
Screenwriter: Michael Radford, Anna Pavignano
Producers: Nicolas Veinberg, Jose Levy, Matthias Ehrenberg, Ricardo Kleinbaum, Ed Saxon
Executive producers: Rob Weston, Angel Losado Moreno, Osvaldo Rios, Carsten Lorenz, Aaron Gilbert
Cinematographer: Michael McDonough
Production designer: Stephanie Carroll
Costume designer: Gary Jones
Editor: Peter Boyle
Composer: Luis Bacalov
Casting directors: Sharon Howard-Field, Ronnie Yeskel

Rated PG-13, 105 minutes