It is no easy task to extract a film from its cultural background and language and plunk it into a completely different world with a whole new audience to convey to. The humor may be easily lost in translation, a flowing chemistry between characters may come off as rigid or forced and even a change in city could set a different tone. Yet I can safely say that Michael Radford’s American remake of the Spanish-Argentinean comedy is a seamless transition that still holds true to the message of not being afraid to live or to love, no matter one’s age.
After eight months of his wife’s passing, Fred (Christopher Plummer) begrudgingly moves into an apartment with the help of his overly protective daughter Lydia (Marcia Gay Harden) and her husband (Chris Noth) who is pushing Fred into investing $90,000 into his new business. Fred has lost his joie de vivre, if he ever had it, and spends his days tired in bed doing his best not to exert himself or engage with anyone.
His plans for quiet days are soon interrupted by his neighbor, Elsa (Shirley MacLaine), whose reckless driving causes a small accident that will bring her to meet grumpy Fred and shake up his life. With her colourful stories and vivacious personality, Elsa soon begins to wear Fred down, teaching him the steps of life and making him see that it is never too late to live vicariously and maybe even find love.
With the exception of an added meet-cute involving a broken faucet, Fred’s repressed talent for the guitar and a few changes of cultural references, the film is an incredibly loyal shot by shot reproduction of Marcos Carnevale’s original film. Radford doesn’t skip using the best lines of the movie, almost word for word, and I was glad to see the hilarious dinner scene was left intact. Yet that same desire to preserve every detail from the original film can occasionally result in some wooden dialogue. Certain scenes that can carry a lot of power to them, like Lydia’s final revelation about her father, tend to seem rough in their emotional transition from anger, to shock to understanding.
One thing that’s special about the film is the chemistry and sweet interactions between larger than life Elsa and the reserved Fred and trying to fill China Zorilla and Manuel Alexandre’s shoes is a big challenge. Yet Plummer and MacLaine fit into these roles perfectly. Even though Plummer’s version of Fred is somewhat more bitter and angrier than Alexandre –who played it a touch more cheeky and sweet- it is still a great take on Elsa’s counterpart. There is something about Zorilla’s stuttering colorful lies that carry a great sense of humor because she is often caught in the middle of her lies and has to tweak them immediately. I was worried it was something that wouldn’t be translatable but Shirley MacLaine played the part of a giddy, dramatic, fool for love brilliantly.
In the end, it is that tenderness between both characters, each eventually showing their vulnerabilities to each other, that still makes this movie a touching remake, evoking a yearning deep inside for anything but a so-so life.