ELSA & FRED – Blu-ray review

The woman is a joyful eccentric, full of fanciful stories and extravagant behavior. The man is her opposite, a surly homebody with a curmudgeon’s disdain for the outside world. Still grieving the loss of his wife, the man is forced by his daughter to move into the woman’s New Orleans apartment building, unwillingly taking a full-time care-giver with him. Despite initial misgivings, the woman reaches out, tells her stories, takes the man out of his shell. You get no points for guessing they eventually find love as well.

Shirley MacLaine is Elsa the eccentric, Christopher Plummer is Fred the homebody, “Elsa & Fred” the movie that puts these two elderly characters through the standard complications of lightweight rom-com. The film also stars Marcia Gay Harden as Fred’s daughter Lydia, Chris Noth as Lydia’s greedy husband, Jack, and Scott Bakula as Elsa’s supportive son, Raymond. George Segal and James Brolin also appear in small roles.

The filmmakers have a lot riding on the goodwill and charisma of their leading actors, and for the most part MacLaine and Plummer don’t disappoint. They could play these parts in their sleep, but don’t here, so give them credit for gracefully swimming upstream against a current of strained adorableness. The moments that work in this sweet but cloying film occur when the wrinkled cutesiness is minimized in favor of simple, unforced conversation, weaving in and around Elsa and Fred’s varying definitions of a meaningful life.

Adapting from a 2005 Spanish film of the same name, director and co-writer Michael Radford leans on the ‘sentimental and whimsical’ button with his full weight. Incidents and behaviors feel mostly contrived and unlikely, from the meet-cute over a fountaining kitchen faucet to Elsa’s obsession with “La Dolce Vita” to the prominent role of a Picasso painting that may or may not exist.

The film isn’t helped by an uneven supporting cast. Bakula is okay as the film’s voice of reason, and it’s good to see George Segal on the big screen again. But Harden and Noth play Lydia and Jack as shrieking nitwits, so irritating and one-note they capsize every scene they’re in.

Old age is something film seems to perennially struggle with, usually drawn to poles of well-intentioned but stodgy reverence or madcap flightiness. “Elsa & Fred” may give a modicum of dignity to its aging protagonists, but does little else to even the balance.

Video:
The Blu-ray of “Elsa & Fred” is presented in 16×9 widescreen. It’s a satisfactory transfer, with no problems of note, though the warm notes in the indoor scenes were too much for my tastes. There are options for English SDH and Spanish subtitles.

Audio:
The audio track is a comfortable 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, with an option for Stereo 2.0.

Extras:

  • a “Making of” featurette, more enjoyable than most, with interviews with all the cast members, director Michael Radford, and other crew members. There are a few noticeable audio problems in the recording of this featurette.

Parting thoughts:
Despite two solid, likable lead performances by Plummer and MacLaine, “Elsa & Fred” sputters in its treacly insistence on conventional warm and fuzzy shenanigans.

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