A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Why do romantic comedies make it so hard on themselves? All a good one really needs is charismatic stars whom the audience wants to see together, and a plot with the obligatory roadblocks the romantic duo can successfully navigate without breaking the spell of their chemistry. For a recipe with so few ingredients, Hollywood has made an incredibly large amount of bad dishes. The reason so many romantic comedies fail is that they are micro-managed to the point of madness. Something that should be as light as a soufflé is almost always served with the consistency of a brick.
"Elsa & Fred" is the latest brick soufflé thrown at an unsuspecting audience. This movie is so tone-deaf that it tries to wring charm from questionable stereotypes about senior citizens and minorities. The latter is so completely out of place that it gives "Elsa & Fred" an air of elitism that I assume was not intentional. The former drives the plot, and despite the presence of the extremely charming Oscar-winning actors Christopher Plummer and Shirley MacLaine, one cannot help but root for this couple to stay the hell away from each other. The pitch meeting must have been “it’s the typical bad romantic comedy…but with OLD PEOPLE!!”
For its senior-aged couple, “Elsa & Fred” presents a grouch and a compulsive liar, the latter of whom is so incredibly unlikeable that you root for the grouch to drive her away forever. At least the grouch has reason for his temperament: Fred (Plummer) is a recently widowed man whose shrew stereotype of a daughter Lydia (Marcia Gay Harden—another Oscar winner completely wasted here) treats him as if he’s gone senile. Lydia hires an African-American caregiver (Erika Alexander) for Fred. The caregiver’s '80s aerobics instructor look and street vernacular get insulted by Lydia, and, in one unfortunate scene, Alexander holds up a watermelon in close-up and without irony.
While Lydia represents the “those pesky young people are so ungrateful” subplot, Plummer hooks into these early scenes of resentment and bitterness, embodying them with a deeply internalized, unspoken suffering. You almost want his Garbo-like wish to be left alone to be granted, if only so he can reconcile the death of a wife he actually hated.