Amiable and mild, the chief pleasures of Richard Loncraine's 5 Flights Up (which played festivals last year as Alex & Ruth) are the comfortable, unstressed performances of Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman as a longtime married couple (Ruth and Alex) beginning to come to grips with new realities.
After 40 years, they're beginning to realize that the five-story hike up to their beautiful Brooklyn apartment won't be manageable forever. And their unidentified neighborhood (probably Williamsburg) has seen an influx of "hipsters and gentrifiers" that has driven property values up -- though they were actually higher a couple of years ago, according to their go-getter agent Lily (Cynthia Nixon). But if they sell now, their place might net as much as $1 million -- which would be enough to allow them to move into a smaller, elevator-serviced apartment, maybe even one in Manhattan.
5 Flights Up
82 Cast: Diane Keaton, Morgan Freeman, Cynthia Nixon, Claire van der Boom, Korey Jackson
Director: Richard Loncraine
Rating: PG-13, for language and some nude images
Running time: 92 minutes
Complicating the scenario is an incident on the Williamsburg bridge, visible from the window of the airy bedroom Alex -- a painter, presumably of at least modest success -- uses as a studio. A tanker truck has jackknifed, blocking several lanes, and the driver, a young Muslim from Uzbekistan, has run away. The authorities are worried that he might be part of a plot, and though there's no real evidence of malicious intent, the local TV talking heads are having a field day speculating about his motives. (The movie's best joke is that all anyone seems concerned about is how the terrorist threat might affect the real estate market.)
On top of that, Dorothy, the couple's 10-year-old dog, who is having more trouble with the stairs than either Ruth or Alex, suffers a ruptured disc that leads to unexpected and exorbitant vet bills. (Those who are sensitive to the sacrificial uses of animals in movies should -- spoiler alert -- not worry too much about the old girl.)
The set-up is sound, and given our familiarity with the usual filmic personae of Keaton and Freeman, what ensues isn't terribly surprising. Ruth is alternately upbeat and neurotic, while Alex is gently grumpy and forbearing, a pragmatic soul with a marshmallow heart. He doesn't want to move but he acknowledges reality. She looks at the situation as a chance for a new adventure. Lily -- who's Ruth's niece -- senses an opportunity for a big commission. So let's bring on the prospective buyers -- a parade of characters and stereotypes, none of whom seem quite deserving of the old apartment.
Except for the eccentric woman who likes to try out the beds in prospective new homes with her charming, highly articulate young daughter. Unfortunately they don't have any money, much less the hoped-for $1 million.
There are better movies about the New York real estate market -- last year's Love Is Strange, about an older gay couple left homeless after the misguided sale of their apartment comes immediately to mind. 5 Flights Up is neither that ambitious or harrowing, and its greatest virtue is the understated way it handles the central relationship (though we aren't quite spared the speech about how brave they were to marry back then, when interracial unions were "illegal in 30 states"). Alex and Ruth are good together, and while there are lots of holes in the movie (such as what exactly does Ruth do? Surely something lucrative. Do they really hold open houses with the owners in attendance? That flies in the face of personal experience, but maybe that has something to do with me) we're willing to forgive a lot in exchange for some time in their company.
The film ends, inevitably and deflatingly, with a resolution that feels less like a cheat than a surrender. After all this, we might have expected a definitive answer, but at least the movie avoids slipping completely into mawkishness. Certainly it could have been a sharper, biting satire -- instead it's just a pleasant anecdote.
That's all right, there's room for modest mainstream movies that present us with a romanticized view of our daily existence. And it's fun to watch skilled mimics Claire van der Boom and Korey Jackson impersonate Keaton and Freeman as the younger versions of Ruth and Alex, scampering around New York in the 1970s.
That might have made a great film -- imagine a romantic comedy featuring Annie Hall and Fast Black.
MovieStyle on 05/15/2015
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