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Long-suffering love, longer suffering film-making

Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer on a mission to fulfill a bucket-list wish as the title characters in "Elsa & Fred." (indiewire.com)

Early on in the so-called "romantic-comedy" Elsa & Fred, which co-stars extremely capable actors Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer, Plummer's character, an 80-year-old recent widower, says, "I seem alive, but I'm already dead."

The same could be said for director Michael Radford's Americanized remake of the 2005 Spanish-Argentinian elder-romance of the same title.

Co-written by the director and Anna Pavignano, one of five scribes credited with the screenplay of Radford's truly enchanting Il Postino/The Postman (1994), Elsa & Fred jumps over too many clichéd hoops trying to add funny to what could have been a simple tale of new-found love as the sun ebbs on life.

MacLaine and Plummer, who toyed with elder romance in the late Richard Attenborough's Closing the Ring in 2007, do all they can as the title characters.  Fred Barcroft, alternately cared for and badgered by his overbearing daughter (Marcia Gay Harden) a few months after his wife dies, lands next door to ditzy Elsa Hayes in a New Orleans apartment house.

It's not that a relationship is inevitable here that bothers me the most about this romantic-comedy misfire, it's that Radford (Flawless, The Merchant of Venice) falls into the trap of attempting -- and failing -- to transfer the zaniness of the Spanish original to, how shall we say, more sedate American comic sensibilities.

Every time MacLaine hops behind the wheel of the giant orange boat of a car she drives around New Orleans and cranks up the hip-hop music (Yes, I said hip-hop), all I can think about is Ruth Gordon cruising New York streets in various stolen cars trying to save dying trees in Harold and Maude, the dark comic classic treasure of 1971.

The two elders fall truly, madly, deeply in love despite the confused adult children, including Scott Bakula as Elsa's concerned son.  But there are two serious road blocks for those of us in the audience.  Radford and his co-writer keep throwing in characters from nowhere who show up for a scene or two and wander away.  George Segal as Fred's old friend John is one.  James Brolin as Max, Elsa's ex-husband (or is he?), is another.

Somewhere, lurking just below the outlandish nonsense, is a sweet tale about a lonely guy up for one last grasp at true love and a lovable, white-lie spewing woman with health issues who has waited for about six decades for her prince charming to come along and fulfill her dream of channeling Anita Ekberg in Federico Fellini's classic La Dolce Vita (1960).

It's not that filmmakers can't find a way to make elder romance -- even elder romance with comedy -- work in a way that younger, say middle-aged audiences can relate.   British director John Madden managed that beautifully with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in 2012.

Oscar winners MacLaine (Terms of Endearment) and Plummer (Beginners) can only force their way through situations more overly silly than fun in this one.

While it's commendable that top-flight elder actors like Plummer and MacLaine still get to bask in the cinematic spotlight at times, that alone is not enough.  Actors of this standing need decent lines to say in screenplays that don't insult the actors or their audiences.

MPAA rating:  PG-13 (for brief strong language)

105 minutes

Jalapeño rating:    (out of 4)



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Have to disagree with your assessment of Elsa and Fred......as the female half of the equation (85) and my "Fred" is 91.....we found it delightful and it brought us quite a few laughs.....I was a bit jealous of the Rome part as have never been there but other than that ...have enjoyed many outings with my 'significant other' that I had never had before and am anticipating some more in the future.

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