As far as festival openers go, you could do a lot worse than Elsa & Fred; or perhaps not. Michael Radford’s remake of the Argentinean film of the same name features charming performances from Oscar-winners Christopher Plummer and Shirley MacLaine but little else of note. While it’s bound to do well with the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel demographic, Radford’s uninspired direction and flaccid screenwriting (with Il Postino co-writer Anna Pavignano) as well as the haphazard editing give it a whiff of something you’d find on the Lifetime Network, lest a film festival opener.
Plummer plays Fred Barcroft, an 80-something recently widowed grump, who is moved into a rundown apartment building in New Orleans by his daughter Lydia (Marcia Gay Harden) and sleazy son-in-law Jack (Chris Noth). Although he’s in reasonably good shape for someone of his age, Fred’s dissatisfaction with life, marriage and children have caused him to permanently retreat to the comfort of his living room. He’s also he prone to berating his daughter, grandson Michael (Jard Gilman) and the daycare professional Lydia’s hired to take care of him.
When a plumbing accident in the kitchen turns his apartment into a mini-watering hole one evening, he’s forced to leave the confines of his apartment. The first person he turns to is neighbor Elsa (Shirley MacLaine), who in turn he strikes up a friendship with. As Fred soon learns, Elsa has her own baggage. A sassy and lonely dreamer with an unhealthy obsession with La Dolce Vita – particularly the film’s famous Trevi Fountain scene, Elsa’s also a compulsive liar, prone to telling fantastical stories that only serve to drive Fred nuts. But her carpe diem outlook on life soon proves irresistible to him and initial contempt predictably leads to romance.
With a distinguished career that includes films as eclectic and diverse as The Sound of Music, Malcolm X, The Insider, Inside Man, The Man Who Would Be King and his Oscar-winning turn in Beginners, it goes without saying that Plummer’s presence alone is enough to elevate material. And that’s largely the case here. Even though Plummer’s portrayal of Fred can be boiled down to the grumpy old man trope perfected by Alan Arkin and adopted by everyone from Robert De Niro to Jack Nicholson, the thesp succeeds in making him a genuinely likeable guy.
MacLaine isn’t as successful in a more complex role but approaches Elsa with the same zeal and energy that made her an icon in films like The Apartment and Terms of Endearment. Elsa & Fred could have been a major embarrassment for the two vets but their winning chemistry and jovial tête–à–tête keeps the film alive despite the best intentions of Radford and crew to drown the film in an ocean of sentimentality. Elsa & Fred is an attestation that sometimes star quality does make a difference.