There aren’t a lot of sweet movies these days, and by “sweet” I don’t mean sentimental or family friendly. I mean nice movies about regular folks. Elsa and Fred is a pleasant exception to this phenomenon as well as a delightful vessel for two of the most talented actors of our time: Christopher Plummer and Shirley MacLaine. The movie may have its shortcomings, but it’s endearing nonetheless.
Following the death of his wife, Fred (Christopher Plummer) is moved into an apartment by his overbearing daughter (Marcia Gay Harden). She’s already hired a woman named LaVerne (Erika Alexander) to help with cooking and housework, though it’s clear her real purpose is to make sure Fred remembers to change his underwear and get some fresh air once in awhile. This is not a great moment in anyone’s life, but Fred accepts his lot with a sort of cantankerous resignation.
Meanwhile, Elsa (Shirley MacLaine), is in the apartment down the hall approaching her twilight years with a sense of reckless abandon. She says what she wants. She does what she wants. She lies if she wants. In short, Elsa’s Devil-may-care attitude spares her from the more depressing aspects of old age. It does not, however, spare her from trouble. She only meets Fred after slamming into his daughter’s car and trying to weasel her way out of the infraction.
Ostensibly, Elsa and Fred have little in common, but they’re neighbors and they’re roughly the same age and that’s a start. A series of brief interactions leads to a tentative, then tenacious friendship (at least on Elsa’s part). Though Fred withdraws several times, Elsa always comes back, loyal and adventurous as ever. It comes as no surprise that Elsa and Fred have a million little misunderstandings and a few full-on quarrels, but they keep going back for more. Why? Because the alternative is to sit at home and nurse your various ailments while waiting for your adult child to drop in and treat you like a child. It’s kind of delightful then, that Elsa and Fred embark upon an unlikely but inspired journey abroad together. If you’re going to treat them like children, well, then, they may as well do something childish (and fabulous)!
Though parts of the movie are a bit illogical, it is saved by the unwavering dignity of Plummer and MacLaine. Few other actors could make a curmudgeon and a compulsive liar seem so charming, or add so many nuances to such broadly drawn characters. They make Elsa and Fred a hopeful little movie that celebrates maturity and frivolity in equal measure.