Not even the ever-winning company of Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer is enough to reward the viewer’s investment in “Elsa & Fred,” a bland and formulaic tale of two senior citizens who discover that it’s never too late to fall in love — which may well be true, but doesn’t keep this rickety recycling of a 2005 Spanish-Argentinean comedy from feeling long past its sell-by date. Joining the recent Michael Douglas-Diane Keaton vehicle “And So It Goes” as depressing evidence of the dwindling Hollywood options available to excellent actors past a certain age, the Millennium Entertainment release might get a mild commercial boost from its cast names, but otherwise looks to quickly totter in and out of theaters.
Several months after his wife’s death, grumpy old Fred (Christopher Plummer) moves into his own New Orleans apartment with the less-than-welcome assistance of his daughter, Lydia (Marcia Gay Harden), who fussily attends to Dad’s every concern even as she and her husband (Chris Noth) try to coax him into donating $90,000 to a hopeless business venture. One can scarcely blame the cantankerous old coot for wanting to lie in bed all day and be left alone, even when his hired caretaker (Erika Alexander) urges him to get out for some fresh air.
The infusion of oxygen he needs, it turns out, comes courtesy of Elsa (MacLaine), the spirited widow who lives next door, and whose carelessness behind the wheel one day necessitates a few remunerative run-ins with her new neighbor. Giddy, whimsical, meddlesome and slightly endearing when she’s not totally annoying, Elsa gradually wears down Fred’s defenses, her vivacious energy gradually awakening his own long-dormant charm. It’s not long before the old man flushes his meds and his attitude, learning to embrace life for the gift that it is; long walks in the park, nice dinners and sweet guitar serenades ensue. There is the occasional hiccup — Elsa turns out to be a rather colorful spinner of tall tales, to put it mildly, a fact that’s milked for awkward situational laughs one minute (including a two-scene James Brolin cameo) and shameless tears the next.
For a movie that’s ostensibly about casting off the shackles of old age and embracing excitement in life, there isn’t a single moment here that feels original or spontaneous — and not just because of the faithful-to-a-fault adaptation by Anna Pavignano and Michael Radford, who does his fine cast no favors by directing them to strained sitcom rhythms. Stuck in roles that require them to shift abruptly between sweet and sour as the plot dictates, the leads get by largely on audience affection: MacLaine’s dignity prevails even when she’s forced to do things like dance along to “Shake It” on the car radio, while Plummer could do this curmudgeonly routine in his sleep, though it’s a far cry from his much more nuanced portrait of late-in-life blossoming in “Beginners.”
Elsa’s favorite movie is “La dolce vita,” which she rewatches obsessively; the resulting excerpts count as easily the most compelling moments of “Elsa & Fred.” It’s perhaps an unfair truism that any extended homage to a vastly superior movie will merely leave you feeling all the more resentful toward the one you’re stuck with. But Elsa’s longing for her own Trevi Fountain moment is cloyingly overplayed, building all the way to a predictable Roman-holiday climax that feels less uplifting than condescending. It’s as though the film were encouraging the audience to emit a collective, cheek-pinching “awww” as these two aging lovers bask in one last moment of glamour and sensuality before … well, to spell it out would be both superfluous and unkind. Suffice to say that the end comes not a moment too soon.