Reviewed for the Miami International Film Festival.
There comes a time when you have to admit actors you like pick terrible films to make. One such film is Michael Radford’s Elsa & Fred, which led the Miami International Film Festival this year at the opening night gala. It’s almost painful to admit that a film derived from a delightful little Spanish-Argentine production of the same name could be so poorly put together, but it is.
Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer co-star as the titular characters, two elderly people living (mostly) on their own right across the hall from each other. Elsa is a carefree old woman, with plenty of sass to boot, while Fred is a callous, mean old man. Surprise: guess what two people hit it off after a bumpy start? You guessed it! Elsa & Fred! That’s the title! Its predictability isn’t its worst issue though, as the older film managed to be somewhat delightful even with that same flaw. In fact, it’s rather refreshing when it slips into a comfortable stroll through the park as Elsa asks Fred, “Would you like me to show you the path to life?”
So while everyone else in the film is relegated to roles that barely matter, if at all, Elsa and Fred begin their new life as a couple of old fools; full of white lies and little wonder. Each scene features a fight, a make-up, or a reference to Elsa’s favorite film, La dolce vita, which has its fountain scene recreated in the most embarrassing student film fashion for the sort-of-climax. It’s actually somewhat awkward to see MacLaine fawning over Anita Ekberg’s beauty and fame considering she was more well-known in her prime, but it’s something that can be excused. What can’t be excused though is the poor choices in camerawork, characters with wildly differing personalities, generic jazz music awkwardly edited in between each and every scene, and an ending that feels barely thrown in at last minute. Radford’s answer to a question during Q&A revealed that they shot it all in about two weeks. I leaned over to my friend and simply muttered, “It shows.”
This isn’t to say that there aren’t a few laughs to be had at least. Plummer and MacLaine have enough chemistry together during a couple of scenes that are enough to make one go “awwww” before the next cheesy moment, but after a while, the sheer ridiculousness of their relationship starts getting too overblown. One visual gag in particular that seemed to only work on me was the labeling of every bottle of Plummer’s pills with the words “Ethical Drugs” in huge letters. Simple, but effective. It’s a shame Radford didn’t take that approach to the rest of his work, as there was plenty of potential for a delightful work. Sadly, that’s about all there is to enjoy.
While it’s occasionally nice to see a film that actually shows that romance exists in an older generation, this remake isn’t one to sell that. As much as I’m loath to say this, even The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel does a better job at presenting active old folks trying to get a grand experience out of life before they kick the bucket. At this, and most things, Elsa & Fred fails.
Elsa & Fred is opening in Miami on November 7th.
Directed by Michael Radford; written by Michael Radford & Anna Pavignano; based on the film by Marcos Carnevale; starring Christopher Plummer, Shirley MacLaine, Marcia Gay Harden, Scott Bakula, Chris Noth, James Brolin, Wendell Pierce, Indigo, and Jared Gilman; 104 minutes.