It would take a lot to squander the talents of Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer, but Elsa & Fred comes awfully close to doing so. Without much to recommend beyond the merits of the veteran actors, the inconsequential romantic drama swerves from being pondering to pleasant and back again. During the scenes of the couple’s impromptu running around the bustling city, trying to find a spark through more delinquent pleasures, the film finds its pulse. When we are locked in their apartments, watching their strained attempts at finding friendship, Elsa & Fred is dragged down by the screenplay’s inactivity.
Indifferently directed by Michael Radford of Il Postino fame, the drama focuses on two seniors living in adjacent, golden-lit New Orleans apartments. Elsa Hayes (MacLaine) is a bit of a troublemaker, trying to get out of paying for damaging a sports car by playing up her oblivious senior citizen qualities. Divorced from her husband of many years, she keeps a safe distance from the rest of her family. Elsa dreams of leaving her modest living for a spree in Rome, which would emulate the characters from her favorite film, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
While Elsa loves to drive around town and wants to be active, 80-year-old Fred Barcroft rarely leaves his bed. He calls lying back on the couch and reading the obituaries an “activity.” By lounging around his apartment, though, he cannot avoid the constant visits from his overbearing daughter, Lydia (Marcia Gay Harden), and her engineer husband, Jack (Chris Noth). They hope that Fred will use some of his savings to co-finance one of Jack’s inventions, but Fred would rather be left alone.
Elsa & Fred is a fairly conventional romance, one that takes the “manic pixie dream girl” stereotype and boosts the age of the character. Elsa’s dreams of Italy and her resolve to live her last years to the fullest collide with his mopey attitude. However, instead of avoiding Fred’s pessimism when it comes to growing older, Elsa devotes her time to opening up Fred’s world and getting him outside. “Let me rest in peace,” Fred orders her. “Only the dead rest in peace,” she calls back.
Radford, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anna Pavignano, spends nearly half of the film’s 97-minute running time trying to match this inevitable pairing. By the time a romantic spark finally catches between the two characters, there is only so much room to deal with their love affair. As a result, the first half of the film drags, while the second half feels too brief.
Based on a 2005 Spanish-Argentine film, the drama features a large supporting cast but does little of use with them. When Gay Harden and Noth appear onscreen, they speak too quickly and nearly scream their dialogue, as if Radford’s main direction was to keep the energy up but get off the set soon to keep the production moving on time. Jared Gilman (of Moonrise Kingdom fame) has a slender role as Fred’s grandson, Michael, but there is almost no time for their relationship to develop, either. The scenes with their other family members, which infringe on the time Elsa and Fred get to spend together, are rushed and unnecessary. (In them, the characters often exclaim what they are thinking out loud, something they would not do without a camera or script present.)
Do MacLaine and Plummer’s presence save a rather rote romance? Almost. The former, who hasn’t had a worthwhile big-screen role since 2011’s Bernie, uses her warm smile and brash mouth to give dimension to a woman filled with sympathy and sly intelligence. Plummer has had a late career boost, driven by his return to the stage and his Oscar win for Beginners, and he is winning here, too. Although Fred is a cantankerous cliché, the moments when the character is allowed to open up and embrace the little time he has left are too heartfelt to ignore.
As a film about seniors trying to fend off the ghost of death by kindling a new love, Elsa & Fred boasts some thematic weight yet ultimately falters to its conventionality. MacLaine and Plummer have dazzling chemistry and it is such a giddy pleasure to watch them that the film remains delightful even over the duller patches. However, with such noteworthy stage work behind these acclaimed actors, one can only imagine the depth the two-some could have brought to these characters if they were given the time to let these characters breathe under a theater spotlight.
Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer bring class and depth to subpar material in the septuagenarian romance Elsa & Fred.