When one actor is particularly magnetic to watch, the well-worn adage goes that fans would pay money to see that actor read the phone book. Fans of Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman that would find that directory patter electrifying will be part of the target audience for 5 Flights Up, yet another septuagenarian drama that coasts almost entirely on the gentle chemistry between those stars. If you’re willing to pay money to see them go apartment shopping, this is the film for you.
Freeman and Keaton star as Alex and Ruth Carver, a charming couple with mixed feelings about selling their quaint Brooklyn apartment – one that overlooks the bridge, has a garden on the roof and plenty of sunlight coming through the windows. They have lived at this picturesque location for 40 years, but now that Ruth has retired from teaching and Alex huffs to get up the five flights leading to the door, they consider searching for a new place. Their only qualifications: an elevator and a place for Alex to paint. Ruth’s niece, Lily (Cynthia Nixon), is their realtor who sporadically cuts into their lives to keep the place looking spiffy for potential buyers.
But, there is resistance from Alex, who cannot seem to let go of home. As expected, the drama shifts from shots of Morgan Freeman gazing into the distance to tranquil, gold-hued flashbacks of the protagonists as newlyweds, played by Claire van der Boom and relative newcomer Korey Jackson. Jackson and van der Boom aren’t just uncanny younger versions of Alex and Ruth, but nail the traits of the leading actors. He has Freeman’s easy smile and sunken warmth, while she has the vivacity and wry tongue of the Sleeper-era Keaton. These flashbacks, although fleeting and too reluctant to explore the character’s backstories with much depth, are the best part of the film.
Unfortunately, neither character is well-defined: Alex is supposed to be a struggling artist yet we never get a sense of his creativity or temperament, while Ruth is a retired English teacher who never had children of her own and sympathizes with a lesbian couple looking to buy their place. Director Richard Loncraine knows to treasure the actors at his disposal, and so he lets the camera linger on Keaton and Freeman, as they flirt and converse. However, for the two Oscar-winning actors at the film’s helm, this is middle-of-the-road material. Unsurprisingly, for a movie adapted from literature and starring Freeman, 5 Flights Up features the actor’s reflective, legally required voice-over, which pops in and out of the story at random times.
5 Flights Up is based on the bestseller Heroic Measures, by Judy Climent, although some of the novel’s subplots don’t quite fit with the film’s relaxed rhythms. There is a distracting periphery story about a presumed “terrorist” walking around the streets of Williamsburg and the police’s faltering search for his whereabouts. Charlie Peters’ screenplay focuses so frequently on characters glancing at the television screen, worried about the danger outside, that one expects Ruth and Alex will walk into their apartment and find the alleged criminal lying on their bed. Instead, the lurking chance of violence is only used as a story pivot, to create tension, since the Carvers may not be able to sell the place with a supposed madman on the loose. For all the attention this unseen antagonist gets, the payoff is disappointing.
In other moments, the film is so casually paced that the only suspense comes when the characters wait for real-estate bids. There is also a subplot involving the Carvers’ dog, Dorothy, that has to undergo a surgery on the day of their open house. Dorothy causes them a bit of initial worry, but the story is quickly forgotten, with the exception of the phone ringing in the midst of the rising action of the final third, as the couple is trying to figure out whether to buy, sell or wait for a better offer. (Much of the dialogue in that last third is, essentially, characters shouting apartment prices.) The stakes in this story just aren’t that high.
Just as the characters are glued to the local news, 5 Flights Up‘s screenplay waits patiently for new story developments. Meanwhile, the attempts at comedy never rise above the Carvers judging the regional idiosyncrasies of the folks that arrive at the open house. These include a precocious young girl who makes friendly patter with Alex and knows just the right quip to utter, as well as an upper middle-class psychiatrist (played by Orange is the New Black’s Alysia Reiner) who maps out her plans for the Carvers’ place with a confidence that irks them.
Regardless of its languid feel and small stakes, Freeman and Keaton add a bit of pep to mundane moments in 5 Flights Up, such as sitting on a bench and staring out at the New York Harbor, and scouring through the New York Times for apartment listings. It may not be a phone book, but it’s close.
5 Flights Up is a small story with small stakes that only manages medium pleasures, due to the warm presence of Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman.