Several different movies are incoherently jumbled together in 5 Flights Up, an adaptation of Jill Ciment’s 2009 novel Heroic Measures. (The film played the festival circuit last year under the title Ruth & Alex.) One movie is the story of a longtime married couple, Ruth (Diane Keaton) and Alex (Morgan Freeman), who are coming to terms with the fact that they’re getting older and may be forced to make some frightening changes. Another movie digs into the nuts and bolts of the New York real-estate market. Those two movies complement each other nicely, though the former is a bit on the sappy side. And we could even throw in a movie about Ruth and Alex’s beloved dog, Dorothy, who’s undergoing surgery and may never walk again. But then there’s also a movie, told in flashback, about the difficulties involved in being an interracial couple in the ’70s. And there’s a whole parallel movie about a possible terrorist attack, too, which threatens the safety of nobody on-screen but does threaten various characters’ bank accounts.
Most of these movies are at least mildly interesting, but if 5 Flights Up is worth seeing, it’s primarily for the pleasure of Keaton and Freeman’s company, plus maybe for some tips on buying and selling an apartment. Alex, a painter, is beginning to have a little trouble climbing the five flights of stairs to the unit he and Ruth bought in Brooklyn decades earlier and have lived in ever since. Consequently, Ruth’s niece, Lily (Cynthia Nixon), who’s a real-estate broker, has persuaded them to sell the place and move to an elevator building, perhaps in Manhattan. As Ruth and Alex endure the indignity of obnoxious strangers (and one cute little girl) appraising their home out loud, and visit open houses themselves (at which the same cute little girl is always present), they remember the beginning of their relationship. They also continually check in with the vet about Dorothy’s condition, and monitor the TV set for breaking news about the Uzbekistani truck driver who abandoned his jackknifed vehicle on the Williamsburg Bridge and is feared to be a terrorist.
That last element presumably comes across as less distractingly irrelevant in Ciment’s novel, which is told from multiple points of view—including the dog’s. 5 Flights Up, by contrast, largely privileges Alex, in part because Morgan Freeman is federally required to provide wise-sounding voice-over narration for any film in which he appears. His recurring interactions with the cute little girl (Sterling Jerins) go nowhere in particular, and his initial concern about spending a small fortune on Dorothy, who’s fairly old for a dog at 10, almost instantly transforms into “money’s no object.” Likewise, while the flashback scenes are beautifully acted—Claire Van Der Boom and Korey Jackson replicate Keaton and Freeman’s mannerisms without lapsing into impressions, a neat trick—and provide a reminder of what interracial couples once had to deal with on a regular basis, they ultimately don’t have much to do with the present-tense story.
Such are the perils of attempting to adapt a sprawling, unconventionally structured novel into a 90-minute film. All the same, 5 Flights Up remains mildly charming, thanks to the easy rapport between its two stars. Ruth and Alex occasionally fight, but they more often tease; their affection for each other is palpable, as is the sense of a long shared history. Director Richard Loncraine, who used to be much more formally ambitious (he made the striking 1995 version of Richard III starring Ian McKellen), has been serving up pap for the past decade (Wimbledon, My One And Only), but he has enough sense to give Keaton and Freeman plenty of room to breathe, letting Nixon carry the burden of keeping the story moving. And screenwriter Charlie Peters, who’s been kicking around forever (his first credit was 1981’s Paternity, starring Burt Reynolds), succeeds in making the various real-estate negotiations—what offer to make, what offer to accept, how to create a bidding war, who’s liable for what when nothing has been signed, personal feelings trumping financial considerations—genuinely involving, and even suspenseful. That’s plenty of movie right there, frankly. Several of the other movies are superfluous, whether they derive from the book or not.