Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer, two acting legends, deliver committed, sporadically affecting performances in Elsa & Fred. Their talents are squandered by material that starts off as overly trite and lifeless, crafting characters out of bloated dialogue and overly exaggerated actions, but it turns into something oddly more sincere and wholesome in its second half. MacLaine and Plummer fill the roles of elderly widows who find themselves yearning for love in a world that doesn’t respect their wishes to be happy. Family members ask why they should worry about finding romance when they are so old; according to them, what’s the point? That’s the heart of Michael Radford’s film, along with themes surrounding loves built on lies and the drive for a person to be themselves and live out all of their fantasies when they know they may not have much time left. The two leads are exceptional when the moments arise, but they are few and far between. The film falls into romp territory and emphasizes lightness and wistful scenes rather than hard-hitting, revealing truths about the perseverance of the human spirit and the everlasting desire to be loved.
Elsa (Shirley MacLaine) is a teenager in the body of an old woman. She likes to drive fast, dance to her heart’s desire, blast contemporary music, and fantasize about traveling to rome while reveling in her favorite film, La Dolce Vita (a marvelous, fantastical romance from Italian master Federico Fellini). Fred, meanwhile, is a crotchety old man who wants to sit in peace, watch TV, and not be bothered by anyone, including family. The only person he can tolerate is his doctor, who advocates for him to be more active and exercise but he hates the local parks. He’s a curmudgeon ever since his wife died seven months ago. Elsa is a widow of over twenty years, and sure enough they live next to each other in a New Orleans apartment complex. They meet through peculiar means: Elsa hits Fred’s son-in-law’s (Chris Noth) car with hers while his grandson sees everything. Fred’s daughter, Lydia (Marcia Gay Harden), wants her to pay $1500 for the damages, and one thing leads to another. They fancy each other, go on a few dates, and magic begins to happen.
The film is an English adaptation of the 2005 Spanish-language film of the same name. That might help explain the generally stagy, forced nature of the narrative, with many characters delivering monologues or exposing all of their backstory through long discussions. Show, don’t tell. That’s the essence of screenwriting and the film squanders that opportunity by instead providing the audience with every shred of detail and important information needed to understand the story. It’s a simplistic romance that I’ve seen many other times, albeit with better supporting characters and less forced motivations for characters. Why do we need two scenes with MacLaine rocking out to hip-hop/pop music? An actress as talented as her shouldn’t be degraded to such mindless asides. The two leads are phenomenally talented, and only rarely do we see those acting chops shine through. Radford’s film, unfortunately, forces them to talk through their emotions rather than express them. Plummer’s finest roles in his old age have been driven by longing and nostalgia; take a look at his Oscar winning supporting turn in Beginners. Elsa & Fred should strive for more innovative storytelling and more awakening looks at love in such a fragile, limited time span. Instead it falls on familiar tropes and misses the mark on its potential.
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)