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Keaton and Freeman Fix 'er Up

Focus World
 92 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed byRichard Loncraine
Starring: Diane Keaton, Morgan Freeman 
5 Flights Up

There’s an old saying that great actors can give performances so compelling that people would pay to see them read the phone book. Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman put that adage to the test in 5 Flights Up, a slight dramedy that succeeds far more on the charm and chemistry of its leads than on its rather flimsy story.


The title of the movie refers to Ruth and Alex’s Brooklyn apartment in which they’ve lived for most of the 40 years of their marriage. He (Freeman) is a painter; she (Keaton) is a retired school teacher, and they and their beloved dog Dorothy have a pretty good life, other than the fact that going up and down five flights of steps in a building without an elevator is becoming increasingly taxing on aging human and canine legs.


So, they decide to list their apartment for sale, using the services of Ruth’s niece (Cynthia Nixon), a realtor. However, their decision is complicated by two crises, one internal and one external. After years of huffing and puffing her way up the stairs, 10-year-old Dorothy collapses, and a grief stricken Ruth and Alex, who have no children of their own, rush her to the vet. Dorothy needs surgery, and it will be a dicey proposition whether she survives. In the meantime, a terrorist panic strikes New York, when a young, Arabic-appearing truck driver abandons a tanker truck on a busy bridge, blocking traffic.


As a parade of New York’s weirdest make their way through Ruth and Alex’s apartment, they begin making the rounds themselves, traveling to various apartments for sale in Manhattan looking for one to which they might move. Somewhat surprisingly, for a movie with Diane Keaton, Morgan Freeman, a sick dog, and a possible terrorist at loose, the most interesting storyline concerns Ruth and Alex’s financial wheelings and dealings.


Apparently, buying and selling New York City real estate is a real survival-of-the-fittest jungle, where even modest digs, without an elevator, can go for close to a million dollars, and would-be buyers engage in bidding wars, emotional pleas, and all sorts of fun and games. Naturally, Ruth’s realtor niece is a master of the game and approaches the entire situation like Eisenhower planning the D-Day invasion, but Ruth and Alex seem to be merely along for the ride, not even sure they want to move. 


The biggest problem with 5 Flights Up is that Ruth and Alex have no real problems, so the movie has to manufacture some for them. The couple are obviously so happy together and, thanks to the two marvelous actors portraying them, have such great chemistry together that audiences soon wonder just why this movie even exists.


The most obvious problem (and one imported from the source novel by Jill Ciment) that the script throws in the path of Ruth and Alex is the non-stop media focus on the “terrorist” at large. Director Richard Loncraine is occasionally able to score some points with his somewhat satirical but likely realistic sensationalistic treatment of this material. However, the entire subplot seems forced in order to pad out the running time of this short film to a minimum 90 minutes or so. Supposedly, the traffic jams caused by the stalled truck and subsequent manhunt cause the value of Ruth and Alex’s apartment to fluctuate, but that point could have been made in a manner that didn’t add such a bizarre subplot, one that really reveals nothing about the couple.


The movie also adds the characters’ significant backstory. As you might expect, an interracial couple in the 1970s, even in “progressive” New York City ran into problems, and the film details Ruth and Alex’s younger days in a series of flashbacks with the couple portrayed by younger actors (Claire van der Bloom and Korey Jackson) who offer dead on impressions of Keaton and Freeman. These flashback scenes offer the most drama and pathos in the entire movie, but the two lead actors aren’t a part of them. With lesser-known actors as the older couple, a director might have emphasized the earlier days more and produced a more powerful film. Suffice it to say that two relative unknowns will never upstage two Oscar-winning legends in a movie like this, no matter how much inherent drama their storyline has.


5 Flights Up actually works best as a primer of sorts on apartment hunting in New York City. Not having bought or sold a home recently, and never one in New York, I can’t say how accurate the film’s depiction of the real estate market is, but Loncraine gives the audience a highly entertaining crash course in it. Not only do Ruth and Alex get involved in selling their home but what starts out as a day tip to Manhattan on a whim (“let’s see what’s available for us to buy”) turns into a full fledged house hunt of its own, as Ruth and Alex meet the same people who went through their own house picking through somebody else’s as well. What’s most amusing, as Ruth and Alex wrestle with both the idea of selling their home and of buying another, is how their moods change from minute to minute as the prospect of approximately a million dollars passing through their hands changes from pipe dream to reality.


There’s nothing that Richard Loncraine, a talented albeit infrequent director, or his brilliantly talented leads can do to change what’s inherently slight material about dog lovers into more compelling subject matter. The film never quite loses sight of the fact that the only other creature in Ruth and Alex’s happy little world is in severe difficulty, but, in this movie and with these actors, Dorothy’s story never really gains traction.


What does gain traction with the audience is the onscreen relationship between its two great actors. It’s clear that both Keaton and Freeman relished the thought of working together and their onscreen chemistry shows, making this film charming merely by their presence. 5 Flights Up does have some merits of its own other than the stars, but it’s the prospect of seeing them that is, in real estate terms, the movie’s chief selling point. And it’s that presence alone that’s sufficient to close the deal for an audience. 

Read other reviews of 5 Flights Up:


5 Flights Up (2014) on IMDb