I'm pretty sure all of us have our examples of crap movies we're somehow fond of, but while Elsa & Fred certainly could fit that description, there's something else at work in Brit veteran Michael Radford's geriatric romantic comedy. It's a crap movie that somehow works, an utterly tone-deaf, off-key film that seems to have been assembled together with purely perfunctory and even somewhat clumsy professionalism - and yet you find it hard to somehow hold that against it. For all the many issues that Mr. Radford's remake of a little-known 2005 Hispanic comedy has, there's a cheerfulness and a sweetness it accords to its premise and to its lead characters, a kind of resilient dignity that pretty much makes up for its problems.
The expression "embarrassment of riches" may have been invented for the cast brought together here: Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer in the leads, Marcia Gay Harden, Scott Bakula, James Brolin, Wendell Pierce and George Segal in supporting roles - though, to be fair, most of these are really brief one- or two-scene cameos. That makes it even more embarrassing that the film seems to not use any of them properly, or for that matter the New Orleans backdrop - there's a sense that the chequered, resilient recent history of the city may have been (next to Louisiana tax credits) another reason to set there Elsa & Fred, being the tale of two curmudgeonly seniors who refuse to play the role society expects of them.
But there's nothing remotely specific to the city about the film, and in fact the film merely rolls out the classic tropes of the romantic comedy and simply asks its actors to be who the world knows them for. As Elsa, a ditzy fantasist whose outlandish tales seem to straddle a thin line between truth and invention, Ms. MacLaine simply plays a variation on her unconventional romantic heroines; as Fred, the reclusive widower who is moved in next door by his daughter to his great displeasure, Mr. Plummer mines the vein of stern on the outside, soft on the inside parents that The Sound of Music typecast him in.
Their relationship progresses through the traditional boy-meets-girl-etc. arc, given an added gravitas by their age and by the health issues that very evidently will pop up, but even if there's nothing here to extend their range, at no point do the actors condescend. Instead, Ms. MacLaine and Mr. Plummer play it straight and solid, and Mr. Radford merely makes sure the film doesn't let them down. (Frankly, there's not much that can be said for his lackluster, awkward handling other than his respect for the actors.)
The central plot device of Elsa's fascination with Fellini's La Dolce Vita and its famous Trevi fountain scene is the best example of everything this generally ill-advised movie actually gets right: as silly and outlandish as her dream may be, it's also genuine, and that means it's not something to be just dismissed. In an apparently throwaway line spoken towards the end by Ms. MacLaine lies what somehow redeems Elsa & Fred from its unsalvageable crapness: actors who know what they're doing, who are in tune with their characters, and a director who knows enough to let them do it for the good of his movie. "We're not exactly Anita and Marcello", she says, and that's just fine. The Trevi Fountain is there for everyone.
ELSA & FRED
USA, Mexico, Canada 2013
Cast Shirley MacLaine, Christopher Plummer, Marcia Gay Harden, Wendell Pierce, Jared Gilman, Erika Alexander, Chris Noth, Scott Bakula, George Segal, Reg Rogers, James Brolin
Director Michael Radford; screenwriters Anna Pavignano and Mr. Radford; based on the film Elsa y Fred directed by Marcos Carnevale and written by Mr. Carnevale, Marcela Guery and Lily Ann Martin; cinematographer Michael McDonough (colour, widescreen); composer Luis Bacalov; designer Stephanie Carroll; costumes Gary Jones; editor Peter Boyle; producers Edward Saxon, Nicolas Veinberg, Matthias Ehrenberg, José Levy and Ricardo Kleinbaum; production companies Cuatro Plus Films in association with Río Negro Producciones, Defiant Pictures, Creative Andina, Media House Capital, Sisung Film Finance, Lotus Entertainment and Riverside Entertainment
Screened March 17th 2015, Lisbon