In Richard Loncraine’s 5 Flights Up (originally titled Ruth and Alex when it played at the Toronto Film Festival in the fall of last year), the story of a couple aging gracefully is far from its main objective, especially since the couple in question are played by spunky pros like Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman.
Instead of choosing to focus on the troubling or venerable aspects of the autumn years (i.e. Alzheimer’s or a debilitating sickness), the film navigates the simple but highly displeasurable vagaries of selling and buying within the modern day real estate market. In New York City no less. From that streamlined idea, 5 Flights Up manages to spin a warm, lived-in narrative supported by the effortless performances of Keaton and Freeman.
And since Freeman is in the film, we understand that means his majestic, stony voice will serve as the omniscient narrator. Out for a sunny morning walk with his dog, Dorothy, ageing painter Alex (Freeman) explains the shifting dynamics of his Brooklyn neighborhood. Replete with “hipsters” and Wall Street hotshots now, it’s a place that feels as if it’s passing him and his wife Ruth (Keaton) by the wayside. Sadly, what older neighborhood doesn’t seem to be self-imploding and restructuring itself lately, partly out of economic boom or bust but mostly due to any city’s inherent lack of self preservation? Just look at my own downtown Dallas for veritable proof.
And even more demanding on Alex is the flight of steps he traverses every day to reach his apartment. From that humble (but oh so true) set of obstacles, the couple have decided to place their home on the market, led by niece and go-getter real estate agent Lilly (Cynthia Nixon).
From there, 5 Flights Up devotes itself to presenting the ebb and flow of potential buyers, bidding wars, urgent cell phone conversations and Ruth and Alex’s own desire to acquire their own new home. It becomes a head-spinning charade, never losing sight of the sheer vapidity of most real estate surfers and agents.
Interspersed among this hectic 24 hours, Alex begins to think back on his relationship to Ruth, including their first day in the apartment, her own family’s outright hesitancy about the possible mixed-race marriage, and their first meeting as students when she arrived to be his portrait model. As the younger version of themselves, Korey Jackson and Alanna Blair emit wonderful chemistry together, which only serves to strengthen our attachment to them in the present tense.
Despite its at times cloy characterizations of other people around Ruth and Alex, and one subplot that feels a bit forced in its attempt to serve as a dramatic counterpoint, 5 Flights Up never loses its amiable charm or grace about this couple we care about. There are no great emotional upheavals (unless you’re a dog lover) and it underlines the basic tenants of feel-good older adult cinema with ease. It also proves that watching great actors like Keaton and Freeman still producing terrific work means Hollywood hasn’t quite bought into their own version of self-implosion just yet.
The film opens in Dallas at LOOK Cinemas on Friday, May 8.