Ms. MacLaine, in her flamboyantly twinkly, upbeat mode, plays Elsa, a frisky woman of a certain age with a vivid imagination and serious health issues that she keeps to herself. (Her character claims to be 74 but seems at least a half decade older.) Mr. Plummer plays her New Orleans neighbor, Fred, the widower next door with a bad attitude and a refrigerator filled with medications, waiting for the curtain to close on his final act.
“Have you heard of the living dead?” he says early in the movie. “I am that rare case of the dead living.”
The movie, directed by Michael Radford (“Il Postino”) from a screenplay he wrote with Anna Pavignano, is an English-language adaptation of a reasonably well-regarded Argentine film. It is also a valentine to Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” Elsa has a poster from that cinematic landmark on her wall. In her hyperactive fantasy life, her ultimate dream is to re-enact the scene in which Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni splash about in the Trevi Fountain in Rome.
“Elsa & Fred” has the usual complement of younger characters who treat these proud, eccentric oldsters with condescension posing as concern. The worst of them, Fred’s greedy son-in-law, Jack (Chris Noth), is a parasitic rageaholic who is impatient to get his hands on his father-in-law’s money. Jack’s wife, Lydia (Marcia Gay Harden), vacillates between sympathy and exasperation. You can say this on behalf of Lydia and Jack: They don’t try to pack their elders off to a nursing home.
Elsa regales Fred with a raft of personal adventures, many of which are not true. When confronted with a lie — and she tells some whoppers — she is shamelessly unapologetic. After all, they don’t really hurt anybody. And don’t they make life more interesting?