Elsa & Fred and The Wackness
Elsa & Fred
Directed by Marcos Carnevale
Reviewed by Matt Prigge
Opens Fri., July 11
Last winter The Savages explored a subject so depressing it's a wonder the film was made at all: middle-aged children caring for a mentally addled parent. Nothing quite quakes the nerves like the elderly; witness the sickly sweet little number Elsa & Fred.
The polar opposite of The Savages' frank but funny treatment of a hot topic, this Spanish weepie cynically offers up the zillionth variation on an old cinematic stereotype: cute old folks, whose doddering and sometimes destructive antics are there merely to amuse and/or warm the heart. Never mind that this characterization just masks a bottomless fear of death and decay.
A calculated sobfest, Elsa & Fred pairs a reserved hypochondriac family-first type (Manuel Alexandre) with a hot-tempered, speaks-her-mind Argentinian (China Zorrilla) after the former moves into the Madrid apartment building across the street. Both blessed with offspring so horrible they make the yuppie kids from Tokyo Story look altruistic, the pair embark on that rarely depicted journey: old-timer romance.
Director Marcos Carnevale occasionally drops a specific detail of elderly life, as when Alexandre eyes his breakfast of pills. But mostly he condescends, all while sticking to a by-the-numbers plot so predictable even a game of "which of the two will die first?" bears no thrill.
Elsa & Fred is so derivitive that even its fairly moving climax smacks of carbon copy. Zorrilla, who's alleged to have once been the spitting image of Anita Ekberg, heads to Rome to recreate the Trevi Fountain scene from Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita, with Alexandre as her very own Marcello Mastroianni. This would be adorable, except Fellini already did that scene himself--far more movingly--in his 1987 film Intervista.
Who's a movie like this designed for anyway? My own dear grandpa embarked on numerous geriatric romances in his widowed years and had a thing for trashy movies, particularly those starring a leg-crossing Sharon Stone. I imagine he'd have walked out of Elsa & Fred, rolling his eyes at something that bore no resemblance to his life--and perhaps also plugging his ears from its bombastically syrupy score. This movie was definitely not made for people like him.
In case you haven't heard of it from its Sundance semi-infamy, The Wackness is the movie where Ben Kingsley gets to second base with Mary-Kate Olsen in a phone booth. Take that as not so much a spoiler--it happens early on--but as a warning that such daredevil tactics are the film's very lifeblood.
Indeed, a significant chunk of Jonathan Levine's retro fantasia is devoted to an entertaining game of "What crazy-ass things can we get Gandhi to do next?" To reveal too many of the surprises would be unfair. (Though see if you can guess which member of the Wu-Tang Clan shares a tete-a-tete with the Oscar-winner.) Suffice to say, Kingsley looks like he's having the time of his life with his broad New Yawk accent and laughably long locks.
The former Sexy Beast plays a bong-honking Upper East Side therapist who befriends one of his clients: perpetually stoned drug dealer Josh Peck. Stuck in New York between high school and college and paying for his couch time with doob, Peck discovers his puppy-dog love for Kingsley's popular adopted daughter (played by Juno's Olivia "Honest to blog?" Thirlby) is suddenly requited. The two embark on an undoubtedly doomed bout of summer lovin', with the virgin Peck slowly realizing his feelings for Thirlby, who's "done it like a hundred times," are wildly disproportionate to her feelings for him.
The Wackness is set in 1994, but its sexual politics reach back even further. Thirlby turns out to be a bored rich bitch--very much the daughter of Famke Janssen, herself a one-dimensional ice queen mere moments from divorcing poor Sir Ben. The jilted men take comfort in each other, as it goes in films where misogyny masks homoeroticism.
What keeps all this from becoming an unwanted valentine to the bad old days is, oddly, its lack of thought. The Wackness is as dopily endearing as Peck's performance. It often seems the film is as stoned as he is on good weed and great mid-'90s East Coast hip-hop.
Even so, the hazy vibe gets a frequent jolt from Kingsley, who injects despairing melancholia into his bored, lonely and self-destructive firebrand. It's too bad The Wackness expects us to care about Peck's rote puppy-dog heartbreak. But happily, the film seems more aligned with his more blitzed and more entertaining co-star anyway.
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