Film in review – “Elsa & Fred”

elsa fredElsa (Shirley MacLaine) lives in an apartment building in New Orleans where Fred (Christopher Plummer) has just recently moved next door.

Fred’s not a happy guy. His wife died seven months ago, but he claims he doesn’t miss her all that much; they fought all the time. Though his well-meaning daughter, Lydia (Marcia Gay Harden), insisted that he be moved into a small apartment and have a caretaker/housekeeper, Laverne (Erika Alexander), Fred resents the implication that he can’t take care of himself. Though he really doesn’t intend to do his own cooking or cleaning.

In fact, Fred pretty much intends to do nothing. Or at least, as little as possible. Because nobody can tell him what to do. Despite well-meaning suggestions from his daughter, his friend John (George Segal) and Laverne, he doesn’t want to go walk in the park. He doesn’t want to get out and do anything. Sitting in front of the television is just fine. Or just lying in the bed. After all, every day is just so-so, right? Nothing very extraordinary happens. What’s there to get all excited about?

Elsa has noticed Fred’s presence, of course, and wants to find some way to get a conversation going, but she was not expecting him to bang at her door yelling for help. It seems the water from the sink is spraying all over the place, he’s soaking wet, and doesn’t seem to know anything about the cut-off valve below the sink. She helps him, but laughs her way through it. Though Fred doesn’t particularly enjoy her making light of the situation, still, there was something infectious about her laugh….

We all know what’s going to happen next. Fred and Elsa start seeing each other, and Fred comes out of his shell. He starts getting interested in getting out of bed and getting dressed and going out for a walk (with Elsa). They have dinner together. They are obviously enjoying each other’s company. What could go wrong?

Ah, but Elsa is a whirlwind, who has a tendency to embellish things, even make up things, because they’re more interesting than reality. That makes Fred wonder if anything she tells him is true. He’s already caught her in a couple of lies about her family relationships: actually, her ex-husband isn’t dead, he’s just dead to her. And actually, she has two sons, it’s just that she sees the younger one, the artist, secretly, to hand him money, which infuriates the older one (but then, he’s angry most of the time, anyway). Elsa doesn’t have time to be angry. She’ll run away from a fender-bender or a restaurant bill. She’s on dialysis, but of course tries to keep that a secret from Fred. Why worry about that stuff? Why not just enjoy ourselves?

It’s unusual to see people “of this age” in bed together in the movies, but don’t worry, they keep their pajamas on. It’s just that their cuddling and affection obviously means so much to them, so why should their kids be so concerned?

Well, maybe because Fred takes the money he’d promised his daughter for some cockeyed business venture and instead spends it lavishly on Elsa so she can fulfill her lifelong dream of imitating Anita Ekberg in “La Dolce Vita” and wade in the Fontana de Trevi in Rome with a black evening gown and a white cat. Fred does his best to make her fantasy come true because he has such a good time watching her enjoy her fantasy coming true.

Can octogenarians be trusted to act rationally in relationships? Can anybody? Should people who have been responsible all their lives indulge in something a little reckless at the end? Well, that’s “La Dolce Vita,” isn’t it?


Ronald P. Salfen is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.