Fuse Film Review: “5 Flights Up” — Growing Old … the Hollywood Way

How much longer can these seventy-somethings climb those stairs?

5 Flights Up, directed by Richard Loncraine. In movie houses around New England.

Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman in "5 Flights Up."

Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman as a sweet pair of septuagenarians in “5 Flights Up.”

By Paul Dervis

If you are looking for a sentimental tale about growing old gracefully in an increasingly youth oriented society then this is the film for you. 5 Flights Up gives viewers an opportunity to spend a day on earth with Alex and Ruth, a sweet couple who have spent the past forty years watching their Brooklyn community change from endearingly ‘artsy-fartsy’ to Wall Street shark desirable. Their real estate broker niece has convinced the adorable codgers that living on the fifth floor of a walk-up is too much for them; time to put out feelers about the condo’s market value. How much longer can these seventy-somethings climb those stairs?

For 24 hours Alex and Ruth’s lives are turned upside down. Alex (Morgan Freeman), a painter who never achieved any big-time success, is resistant to having strangers stomp through his creative sanctuary. Ruth (Diane Keaton), a retired school teacher, is more pragmatic. Another complication: the childless couple’s faithful dog is at the Animal hospital … under the knife and no longer able to manage the steps.

So for one painful day they need to suffer the rude indignities of arrogant, one dimensional twenty-somethings sizing up their home, tearing it, and by extension their cozy lifestyle, apart.

Oh, and there is a subplot.

A truck has jackknifed on the Williamsburg Bridge, which is spitting distance to their apartment. The driver, a Muslim, has disappeared, which leads a frantic city to fear a terrorist plot.

5 Flights Up touches on a number of different social issues, and its flirtation with relevance might have cut against the sentiment — if the screenplay had any depth to it. But if you are expecting texture or complexity, look elsewhere.

Freeman’s Alex narrates the film, and he is not into heavy lifting of any sort. He sticks to easy issues. Back in the seventies, when Alex and Ruth first hooked up, they suffered from prejudice. Her parents weren’t happy with the union; their next door neighbor wouldn’t say hello. (Frankly, if that’s the worst this mixed race couple dealt with after a decade of violent unrest, they were fortunate.) The script tries to tie together the pain of racial bias with the indignities of ageism.

It doesn’t work.

And, though both Freeman and Keaton give strong performances, they have too little of substance to work with here. Surprisingly, they also have little chemistry together. They are allowed their predictable moments of pathos, but when all is said and done they fail to move us even as they hammer hard on our heartstrings.

Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame is a fine actress, but she is truly awful in the role of the niece. She plays her as a shrill and unfeeling bitch. A simpleton of any age would be weary of putting his or her future in that character’s talons.

Add to this worn-out formula a busload of stereotypical characters. The couple’s open house brings in your standard lesbian couple — one is hard-ass, the other is as sweet as can be. There’s also the psychologist who can’t stop from yakking into her recording device and the young couple who have fallen on hard times. They need to sell their palace in Manhattan, perhaps because their investments have gone south. Also underfoot: the perennial quirky but cute young girl and her equally perky single mom.

This treacle was directed by Richard Loncraine; he has come a long way from his fine films of the early eighties, such as Brimstone and Treacle and The Missionary. (In the nineties he directed a powerful film version of William Shakespeare’s Richard III starring Ian McKellen, Maggie Smith, Annette Bening, and Jim Broadbent.) He has fallen more than 5 flights down ..

This film is based on a novel by Jill Ciment. It is a book I have not read, and never will.

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.

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