Film Review: ‘Elsa & Fred’

Two great actors do what they can with this strained, witless romance between two neighbors weathering the indignities of old age.

Shirley MacLaine, Christopher Plummer, Marcia Gay Harden, Chris Noth, Jared Gilman, Scott Bakula, George Segal, James Brolin, Reg Rogers, Wendell Pierce, Erika Alexander.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2113659/?ref_=ttfc_fc_tt

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.

Film Review: 'Elsa & Fred'

Reviewed at Wilshire screening room, Beverly Hills, Oct. 24, 2014. (In Miami, Seattle, Rio de Janeiro, Morelia film festivals.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 105 MIN.

Production: A Millennium Entertainment release and presentation of a Cuatro Plus Films production. Produced by Edward Saxon, Nicolas Veinberg, Matthias Ehrenberg, Jose Levy, Ricardo Kleinbaum. Executive producers, Rob Weston, Angel Losada Moreno, Osvaldo Rios, Carsten Lorenz, Aaron Gilbert, James Gibb. Co-producers, Artist Robinson, Justin Bell. Co-executive producers, Margot Hand, Patrick Murray.

Crew: Directed by Michael Radford. Screenplay, Anna Pavignano, Radford, based on the 2005 film “Elsa & Fred” directed by Marcos Carnevale, written by Carnevale, Marcela Guerty, Lily Ann Martin. Camera (color/B&W, widescreen), Michael McDonough; editor, Peter Boyle; music, Luis Bacalov; music supervisor, Andy Ross; production designer, Stephanie Carroll; art director, Christina Kim; set decorator, Alice Baker; costume designer, Gary Jones; sound, Richard Schexnayder; supervising sound editor, Michael Baird; re-recording mixers, Jason Dotts, Jerry Gilbert; special effects coordinator, Ken Speed; visual effects supervisor, Morgan Krutz; visual effects, Films in Motion; stunt coordinator, Stanton Barrett; line producer, Carsten Lorenz; associate producers, Oveishon, Cesar Canavati, Luigi Mira, Eduardo Zarazua; assistant director, Artist Robinson; second unit camera, Doug Schwartz; casting, Sharon Howard-Field, Ronnie Yeskel.

With: Shirley MacLaine, Christopher Plummer, Marcia Gay Harden, Chris Noth, Jared Gilman, Scott Bakula, George Segal, James Brolin, Reg Rogers, Wendell Pierce, Erika Alexander.

More Film

  • Rounds

    Stephan Komandarev and Catalin Mitulescu Films Among Sarajevo's 23 World Premieres

    The latest films from Bulgarian director Stephan Komandarev and Romania’s Catalin Mitulescu are among 23 world premieres competing for the Heart of Sarajevo awards at the 25th Sarajevo Film Festival. Komandarev’s 2017 film “Directions” played in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard and his 2008 opus “The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner” was [...]

  • Tommy JamesCousin Brucie 3rd Annual Palisades

    Tommy James Biopic 'Me, the Mob and the Music' in Development (EXCLUSIVE)

    Pop music star Tommy James and film producer Barbara DeFina are developing the biopic “Me, the Mob and the Music,” based on James’ autobiography. DeFina, whose credits include Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” and “GoodFellas,” and James have tapped three-time Tony Award winner Kathleen Marshall to helm the film adaptation from a screenplay by Matthew Stone (“Intolerable [...]

  • Terminator: Dark Fate

    Comic-Con: ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ Cast Will Hit Reddit Live-Streamed AMA (EXCLUSIVE)

    Arnold is back — and he and other cast members of “Terminator: Dark Fate” are joining a first-of-its-kind live-streaming Reddit AMA on Thursday from Comic-Con International in San Diego. For the new installment in the “Terminator” franchise, Paramount Pictures is hosting a traditional Comic-Con panel Thursday 11 a.m.-12 noon in Hall H. Then, a few [...]

  • Pedestrians walk past a large screen

    Johnny Kitagawa: Power, Abuse, and the Japanese Media Omerta

    Will the death of Johnny Kitagawa lead to a change of attitude by the Japanese media to the powerful Johnny & Associates talent agency that he formed? Public broadcaster NHK and others this week reported a warning to the company from the Fair Trade Commission over alleged pressure on TV stations to keep members of [...]

  • Jahmil X.T. Qubeka on Durban Opening-Night

    Jahmil X.T. Qubeka on Durban Opening-Night Film ‘Knuckle City’

    DURBAN–Dudu Nyakama is an aging boxer whose best fighting days are behind him. But for a man whose only glory has come in the ring, a big prize fight offers the one shot at saving his family, dragging him into the criminal underbelly of the gritty township he’s spent his whole life trying to escape. [...]

  • it chapter two, comic con

    Comic-Con: 4500 Gallons of Fake Blood and Everything Else to Know About 'It Chapter Two'

    Comic-Con 2019 kicked off with a stacked presentation from the director and cast of “It Chapter Two” on Wednesday, inspiring a curious amount of joy at San Diego’s Spreckels Theater in spite of the abject terror offered up by the film. The closing chapter to 2017’s record-obliterating “It,” the highest grossing R-rated horror film of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content