Sometimes the freshest face on the big screen is 80 and counting. Certainly that’s true of Elsa & Fred’s brightest star, Shirley MacLaine.
One of the grande dames of cinema, she’s been seen more around the edges than center stage in recent years. Not so with director Michael Radford, 68, running the show.
As a flirty octogenarian and the better half of Elsa & Fred, the Oscar-winning actress (in 1984, for Terms of Endearment) is very much in the spotlight. And as she has in the past -- whether infusing her lady of the night with sensuality in Irma la Douce or her nun with true grit in Two Mules for Sister Sara -- MacLaine brings the same physical and emotional commitment to Elsa, embracing every wrinkle and sag in this romantic look at latter-day love.
Christopher Plummer, 84, and as suave as ever, is Fred, a new widower about to be enchanted by Elsa, against his will. Fred is being downsized, also against his will, by daughter Lydia, played with a nice blend of sentiment and steel by 54-year-old Marcia Gay Harden. There is pressure to use his life savings to help her money-grubbing spouse launch another sketchy enterprise. As Jack, Chris Noth, nearly 60 if you can believe it, makes this schemer distasteful, but nothing like the juicy watching of Mr. Big in Sex and the City or The Good Wife’s Gov. Peter Florrick.
The circle around Elsa and Fred also includes Elsa’s son Gavin (Scott Bakula, 60), her ex Max (James Brolin, 74), Elsa and Fred’s apartment super Armande (Wendell Pierce, 50), Fred’s caregiver Laverne (Erika Alexander, 44 ), his buddy John (George Segal, 80) and his grandson Michael, a skateboarding teen (played by Moonrise Kingdom’s Jared Gilman, at 15, the baby of the bunch).
I mention the ages of all involved because so much of Elsa & Fred has to do with the effects and implications of age, particularly when reaching one of those large numbers that qualify someone as “elderly.” For Radford, who wrote the script with Il Postino’s Anna Pavignano, 59, being that old does not mean it’s all over. Consider that Plummer won his Oscar at 82 for Beginners, another treatise on never being too old to feel romance’s power.
The filmmakers use Elsa as a template for exploring the dissonance between one’s actual age and that interior emotional time clock that for so many tends to stop just shy of 40. Fred, on the other hand, is designed as a model for those old souls who wear their age in every creak, groan and grumble -- not so much facing Father Time as folding in front of him.
It makes Elsa and Fred ideal opposites, and with Fred just settling into the apartment next to Elsa’s, they are close enough for their opposite natures to attract.The film unfolds like a slow dance: Fred is barely willing to move from his chair at first but more than happy to complain to anyone who approaches. Elsa never stops moving or talking, most often about her favorite fantasy, a famous scene in Frederico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
That film and that fantasy will drive Elsa & Fred. The 1960 classic stars Marcello Mastroianni, 36 at the time, and Anita Ekberg, then 29. They are lovers in Rome; there is an embrace in a fountain. A poster of the scene hangs on Elsa’s wall, a trip to the city to re-create it her dream. Will Fred be her Marcello?There are lots of romantic interludes, frustrating breakups and unfortunate misunderstandings as the film moves toward its answer. Radford’s central point -- sometimes more gracefully made than others -- is that the couple could be 20 or 50. Though the issues are heavy, the execution is light, enjoyable, but it keeps Elsa & Fred closer to Sleepless in Seattle than Fellini’s deliciously deep Roman affair.
Still, the film accomplishes a rare thing these days. While the movie industry prefers to look the other way once an actor moves beyond middle age, Radford zooms in. Director of photography Michael McConough, so at ease shooting Winter’s Bone, the gritty Appalachian drama that launched Jennifer Lawrence, keeps it real here in different ways as he frames all of the incredible faces.
Smart choice. Those incredible faces -- MacLaine alight from within every moment, Plummer’s glow burning brighter and brighter -- make the romance of Elsa & Fred vibrantly alive.
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Elsa & Fred
Director: Michael Radford
Cast: Shirley MacLaine, Christopher Plummer
Rated: PG-13 (brief strong language)
Running time: 97 min.