There is something uncomfortably churlish about picking apart a film that has honourable intentions. It’s a little akin to picking on that clueless kid in primary school who would show up for mufti days in full uniform and spent too long talking about their toenails (Reader, that child was … me). But there is a wide divide between good ideals and good cinema, and Fred (2012, USA) utterly fails to cross that gap. It is a universally awkward film, weak and uncertain, despite boasting a wrenching central turn from Eliot Gould.
It is slight on plot: the titular Fred (Gould) is tip-toeing gently towards Alzheimer’s. His wife, Susan, is considerably further gone, spouting gibberish and barely mobile. Currently looked after by a live-in carer, the film depicts a brief spell in which Fred and Susan’s adult children struggle to reconcile the belligerent Fred with the idea he and Susan are being moved into a nursing home.
The press material for the film compares Fred to a Woody Allen movie, but the only discernible corollary is Fred a) contains dialogue and b) contains Jewish characters. The script itself is risible, a mixture of clunky expository dialogue and laboured monologues. Gould transcends the dialogue with a delicate and sensitive performance, but the rest of the cast are woeful. In particular, it is a crushing disappointment to see Fred Melamed, so brilliant as the suavely malevolent Sy Abelman in the Coens’ A Serious Man, give such a stilted and unconvincing performance as Gould’s self-absorbed son Bob.
Stylistically Fred is just as poorly executed – the editing so amateurish and jarring it frequently jolts you out of the picture. Vague flails towards an aesthetic sensibility are scattered throughout – rapid-cut close-ups, sudden light saturation – but achieve nothing save for calling attention to how awkward they look. An hour in, I found myself celebrating at a brief, pretty shot of a forest. It’s a sorry sign if a film leaves you that desperate for distraction.
Most people will have experienced the pain of seeing a loved one experience Alzheimer’s, or indeed may be facing diagnosis itself. It can be a protracted form of agony when someone struggles with the loss of identity, autonomy, and dignity, for them and all who love them. It is evident Fred is trying to be sensitive to its subject matter and avoid condescension, but in doing so it also fails to create relatable characters or a genuine sense of consequence. Sarah Polley’s delicate masterpiece, Away from Her, does an infinitely more artful and insightful job of depicting what it is to essentially lose yourself. People tempted to Fred would do better to seek out Polley’s 2006 gem. Fred is a quiet disappointment.