In a youth-obsessed culture, a movie about old people in love should be a welcome kick in the pants - a reminder that hormones don't stop firing until the heart stops beating. Unfortunately, "Elsa & Fred," a 2005 Spanish-Argentine coproduction just now appearing in US theaters, toddles along with mild, happy inconsequence. If ever a movie needed Dentu-Grip, this one does.
The actors can't be faulted; if nothing else, they've been around long enough to earn our respect. Manuel Alexandre, 88 when "Elsa & Fred" was made, has been acting in movies since 1947, and he brings the elegant weight of 174 film credits to the role of Alfredo, a gravely composed recent widower. Moved into a new apartment in Madrid at the film's start, he's bowled over by his neighbor Elsa, played by the 83-year-old China Zorrilla as a hotcha force of nature.
Elsa, an emigrant from Argentina, would give Ruth Gordon's Maude a run for her money. She lies for the fun of it, drives like a maniac, and keeps her businessman son (Roberto Carnaghi) in a constant state of anxiety. Setting her cap for Alfredo at first sight, she upends the old man's life until he can't imagine what he did without her.
Zorrilla is good impudent fun - contemplating fresh mischief, she shakes her wattles with glee - but the direction by Marcos Carnevale (who co-wrote the script) nudges the performance into cuteness while dragging out the film's pace. The dialogue runs along dreadfully obvious lines: Elsa actually says to Alfredo at one point, "You're not afraid of dying - you're afraid of living!" In case you didn't get it, Alfredo repeats the sentiment to his shrewish daughter (Blanca Portillo) a few scenes later.
"Elsa & Fred" does graze against an interesting idea: that the vitality of our youths lives on in the prison of aging bodies. Elsa keeps a photo of Anita Ekberg in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" on her wall, a reminder of her own long-ago blond bodaciousness. When she mentions to her lover that she's never been to Rome's Trevi Fountain (where Ekberg frolicked in "Vita") you know the film will find its way there before long. Eventually it arrives at the appointed spot with maximum sentimentality and movie love.
It's all harmless enough and an audience-pleaser for those who prefer their convictions stroked rather than rattled. There are other movies out there, though, that deal with the subject of twilight romance in much fresher ways: last year's "Away From Her," for instance, or "Wolke 9" ("Cloud 9"), a remarkable German movie about septuagenarian sex that played at this year's Cannes festival. Against the sage advice of Dylan Thomas, "Elsa & Fred" goes far too gentle into that good night.