Films for adults are fewer and far between these days. No superheroes? Not based on a bestselling young adult novel? Too bad, so sad. There are a couple that squeak through the system, though, and Michael Radford‘s Elsa & Fred was among them. With an all-star cast including Oscar winners Shirley MacLaine, Christopher Plummer and Marcia Gay Harden along with George Segal, James Brolin, Scott Bakula and Chris Noth you have the making of a pretty good movie in names alone. Does the film live up to the cast, though?
The film is a remake of the Spanish-Argentine film of the same name, Elsa y Fred. It covers the unlikely romance of a grumpy old codger, Fred (Plummer), who moves in next door to the free-spirited and tall-tale telling Elsa (MacLaine). While the two neighbors get off on a bad foot, Elsa’s wily ways win Fred over and the two begin a whirlwind romance that takes them both, as well as their children, by surprise. They are the perfect counterbalance to one another as Elsa is adventurous and romantic, where Fred is more like a hermit and romance is the furthest thing from his mind. Even as the layers of the story that Elsa has told Fred about who she is and where she’s been are peeled away and shown to be lies, he falls deeper and deeper for her. The question that needs an answer is can they make it work or will Fred be unable to keep up with Elsa and her idiosyncrasies?
Without a doubt, Plummer and Maclaine shine in this film. They are as fun to watch as I can last remember. However, there are some curious things about this film that are a little hard to look past and I’m unsure of whether to place blame at director Radford‘s feet (he also co-wrote the script with Anna Pavignano), the creators of the original film or the producers of this version who were unable to translate the film in a way that works for American audiences. The story is well-suited for a romantic comedy but the way the relationship transpires between Elsa and Fred is hurried and almost unbelievable. We are unsure if Elsa is putting on airs as she states she has fallen for Fred really after him running to her for help as his faucet broke and was spraying water all over the place. Fred’s transformation from a crotchety asshole to gushing lover seems all the more unlikely. The film is set in New Orleans, yet they used none of a city with incalculable charm to enhance the story.
The film gets a little cutesy in parts, most notably from Elsa’s perspective. Obsessed with Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Elsa longs to relive the moment where Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni frolic in the Trevi Fountain. And here is where Elsa’s character comes into full light, perhaps giving us the one true thing about her. But the narrative’s abrupt shift shortly after Fred and Elsa make the trip remains one of the more perplexing parts of the film. It just sort of stops and what momentum it had is completely lost. While this part may be cutesy, this is a romantic comedy and this is where the film should tread, not just walking through the standard tropes of the genre, which this film certainly does.
Watching Plummer and MacLaine do their thing is rarely bad and they are fun in most spots and quite effective. Gay Harden is wasted (a shame, really, as I think she is incredibly talented) and Chris Noth is flat awful. James Brolin‘s one scene is quite memorable and welcome. As a whole, though, this great cast doesn’t gel well together, but it may well be worth your time just to watch Shirley charm the socks off of Captain Von Trapp.
This film is out today on Blu-Ray and DVD from Millennium Entertainment.