5 Flights Up is the kind of film that looks better on paper than it really is on the screen. Morgan Freeman as Alex Carver and Diane Keaton as Ruth Carver, play a couple who have been married for 40 years. Through all those years, they’ve lived in the same two bedroom, fifth floor, walk up apartment.
He’s a painter (portraits are his specialty) and she’s a retired NYC school teacher. They’ve grown old together, and are ready to turn over a new page in their lives. They’ve no children at least not the human kind. In lieu of children, they’ve an older dog named Dorothy, and their struggling tomato plants in their rooftop garden.
While neither is in bad health, the long hike up to their apartment is a lot more tiring now than it had been. Plus their Williamsburg, Brooklyn neighborhood is changing. As Alex narrates in an early voice over –
When Ruth and I first moved to Brooklyn, it was like an outpost. To our friends in Manhattan, we might as well had moved to Nebraska. It was out-of-fashion, but it was a good place for a struggling artist like me, and we liked it. Which was good and it was all we afford. The neighborhood has changed a lot. It’s cool now – filled with hipsters, and gentrifiers – but as much as it’s changing, I’m going to miss this place.
Alex spoke of the neighborhood changing as if he were talking about an invasion by aliens. You know the aliens – investment bankers, hedge-fund managers, doctors, lawyers, – people who could afford baby strollers that cost as much as a Chevy.
So the Carvers are going sell their apartment, for big bucks, and relocate to somewhere else in New York. Florida isn’t for them. As Ruth says,
All we need is a place for you to paint, and an elevator.
So that’s the foundation of the film. The whole film takes place over a frantic couple of days when their apartment goes on the market, with the place being shown by their agent in what is called an open-house, and they go out to look at other apartments.
Should they sell? What is a fair price for their place? Will they be able to stand by and watch as various New York types (some of whom are really obnoxious and rude – traipse in and out of the space they’ve lived in for so long? Can they find a new place to their liking and price range? And finally, do they really want to move?
These are the problems and questions that face Alex and Ruth, and they will struggle to figure all of it out in what could be an overwhelming experience over a few days as they ‘put their feet into the water’ and try out the New York real estate market for the first time.
Alex would try to reassure Ruth, and get her to worry less.
Alex: You need to stop worrying…
Ruth: But I like to worry – it calms me…
But the reality is that neither Alex nor Ruth knew what they were getting into. Soon they’d be swimming with the sharks, and their niece/real estate agent hadn’t really done enough prep work with them.
If that sounds a bit thin to you – you are right. This is a story that needs more oomph and weight, and yes, even tension. Freeman and Keaton really sparkle and shine in this film, and one could say that watching them perform, you know, anything, is worth the price of the ticket. So the film directed by Richard Loncraine, with a screenplay written by Charlie Peters, based on the Jill Ciment novel Heroic Measures, is padded out by
1) a story of a missing truck driver who abandoned his oil tanker on the Williamsburg Bridge – who may or may not be a terrorist – and who is a Muslim.
2) A family emergency which consists of their dog Dorothy needing expensive surgery
3) Flashbacks to 40 years ago when a young Alex (played by Korey Jackson) and a young Ruth (played by Claire van der Boom) meet and begin their relationship.
Okay, padding out a bit, is not really a problem, provided the side plots or minor plot lines are either intriguing or offer something to advance the story. Now the segments with the youthful Alex and Ruth did work. The actors involved not only physically resembled Freeman and Keaton, but they’ve incorporated many of the same mannerisms, and they even sounded like their older counterparts.
Of course it does help us understand some of the familial and societal issues they faced when they first began their journey together. So the back stories of Alex and Ruth were more than simple padding.
But the supposed hunt for the ‘terrorist’ in the very same neighborhood where Alex and Ruth live didn’t work dramatically. Yes, the temporary closure of the bridge could impact the number of people who might want to venture into Brooklyn for the open house, or the number of people who may want to move into the neighborhood, but the whole story line seemed inorganic to the rest of the film. Plus the coverage was limited to repeated news flashes which we viewed on the Carver’s television. So it was a step removed – it could just as well been anywhere else in the city, or the country, for the way we the viewers were impacted.
The side story about Dorothy the dog, seemed liked it was shoehorned into the film to give the Carver’s something to worry about on top of the stress of selling and buying an apartment. Watching the Carvers talk to the vet on the phone and fret and worry about the dog was certainly real in the sense of it causing anxiety for the Carvers – but since most of it was done by phone – it lacked true impact.
So basically the film boils down to Alex and Ruth dealing with deadlines, how much for their own apartment, how much to bid on the new apartment. I didn’t mind the portrayal by Cynthia Nixon as the Carver’s real estate agent. She had more than a few good lines. Here’s her best one:
When you’re trying to sell, all the shades have to be up. Light is money.
Or the agent for the other apartment, the one the Carvers were thinking of buying. She was played by Carrie Preston who has appeared periodically on The Good Wife as the annoying Elsbeth Tascioni. Here she’s not annoying, and she plays the role as written – a straightforward real estate agent without ‘mannerisms’.
Yes, if you like Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton, then I would encourage you to see this film, as both are exceptional actors. Just a word of warning – the screenplay is saddled with stories that seem to break up the flow, rather than advancing the story – and the fact that watching apartment hunters in New York streaming in and out of apartments may not be all that satisfying to you.
I’ll call 5 Flights Up as a decent enough film, but not really worthy of higher praise, and I’ll award it a three-point five rating. You can see it in theaters or via streaming on Amazon.
Here is the trailer: