If a competent director puts two versatile, revered actors together into an end-of-life romance and mixes them with film clips of Federico Fellini's classic, La Dolce Vita, then a sure-fire combination is born, right?
Wrong, but not irrevocably wrong.
Michael Radford, who also wrote the new comedy/drama Elsa & Fred and is known for his lyrical romance in films like Il Postino and The Merchant of Venice, presents an uneven, but sometimes sweet merging of two worn hearts. Shirley MacLaine (Terms of Endearment, TV's Downton Abbey) and Christopher Plummer (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Barrymore) reenact one scene of the Italian film starring Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg. The spoiler alert must be mentioned because the reference treads heavily throughout the film, and it remains Elsa's dream to splash in Trevi Fountain as did Ekberg and Mastroianni.
MacLaine and Plummer blend harmoniously in a dulled rendering of the theme that it's never too late to live life to its fullest. Elsa, a compulsive liar who embraces life, dances well with irascible widower Fred, who would rather stay in bed. But, at times, Plummer animates his character more than MacLaine. She dons an unfortunate straw-blonde wig for her role as next-door neighbor to the new tenant. Sorry to say, that wig, meant to enhance her tired, mythic view of herself, drags down her face-her eyes don't have the usual sparkle-and dims focus on any lively dialogue.
When Elsa smashes into Fred's son-in-law's car and lies about it, the mingling begins. Fred shows her some compassion, and she instantly becomes enamored of the stubborn grump.
"A bear with angel wings," she calls him. Plummer plays his part just like that.
Elsa piles up the lies and holds secrets (someone is always dying) while pursuing Fred. She tries to make the stories fascinating, especially one in which she once posed for Pablo Picasso.
Plummer messes up his hair, wears flannel shirts, and insists, "I seem alive, but I'm already dead." Yet, his gruff voice reveals desire stirring within.
Fred's daughter, Lydia, played by Marcia Gay Harden (TV's The Newsroom, upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey), stomps into Fred's apartment, barking orders and manipulating him to fund her husband, Jack's (Chris Noth: TV's The Good Wife, Sex and the City), eyeglass invention. Both actors lift up neither Fred's spirits nor the script.
Scott Bakula (TV's NCIS: New Orleans, Behind the Candelabra) is too subdued as Elsa's son, Raymond, a dutiful, almost-invisible presence, which is not conducive to Bakula's more vibrant abilities. George Segal (TV's The Goldbergs, Just Shoot Me!) arrives as Fred's friend to steal a few scenes (not a difficult task) in a relaxed manner.
Other actors join the dreamer and the fatalist as they become a couple, but are not given much chance to exercise their acting chops. Erika Alexander (Deja Vu, TV's Last Man Standing) plays Fred's home caregiver, and Wendell Pierce (TV's The Wire, Suits) the building's super. Both performers deserve less-tired routines. James Brolin (Catch Me if You Can, TV movie The Reagans) drops in for a cameo and departs after a trite exchange with Fred.
Elsa and Fred's laughter holds the thin tale together and especially gives spirit to the fountain scene, which is filmed exquisitely. At one point, the film turns from color into a moody black and white, just like La Dolce Vita, and, for that moment, the couple delivers a striking tribute to love at any age.
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