Film Review: Five Flights Up

Perhaps inspired by a 1967 play Barefoot in the Park, starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford as earlier incarnations of the protagonists in this comedy, the trope of climbing endless flights of stairs in a rent-controlled building without an elevator will be familiar to big city dwellers of modest means.

Here, Alex (a painter of figurative canvasses that aren’t selling so well) and Ruth carver (an ex-teacher), played by a seemingly mis-paired Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton, have a predictably outstanding Brooklyn apartment lived in for the whole sweep of their 40-year marriage.  Alex got in when the neighborhood was still a pre-gentrification shambles, his voiceover explains.  There are many rooms, great closets, and, of course, incomparable views of the Manhattan skyline.  All for a song – and those five flights up and down for groceries, moving, the garbage, newspapers.

Though they hardly seem to inhabit the same universe, and to this reviewer did not seem well-matched, they kind of sort of decide that the stair thing is getting a mite tired, and Ruth decides, since her niece, Lily – an exact spot-on of a real estate agent we’ve all encountered or engaged, played by cynthia Nixon – is in the apartment-finding biz, to consider leaving their beloved pied a ciel.  Alex is indeterminately older than his trim, very presentable wife, but he balks.

Thence comes the rest of the simplistic plot, with a few subplots having to do with their suddenly ailing dog, Dorothy (also excellent), needing advanced surgery and medical care, and the colorful panoply of obnoxious and predictably rude apartment-hunters doing their dutiful, self-obsessed walk-ons.  There is a possible terrorist bus stalled mere blocks away, causing all manner of worries about apartment values sinking if it turns out to be a terrorist.  The subplot lasts throughout the length of the film, which seems unnatural, as the NYPD would resolve a traffic snarl with a nutcase or potential jihadi in a much shorter time frame.  Still, it gives the film the gritty veneer of what we face, now, as often as we have a dental exam, or more.

Truthfully, it never clicked for this viewer, and Keaton’s bicker-dithering with her husband and others did not quite sell.  We did not for a minute buy that they were married, and that they had stayed married four decades.  Flashbacks to their younger selves with unknown actor faces were not implausible, but coming up to modern day, the back-and-forth did not satisfy.

The true weedy-greedy of all too trying price-dickering and horse-trading by competing agents is real, one can attest from several such buying and selling expeditions.  And truth to tell, several other reviewers, both young and old, did seem to exude contentment with the plot, scripting, and acting.

Some of the ancillary details and backgrounding were amiss: the subways were clearly filmed not in NY, but in chicago or some canadian city.  The coke bottles were not those shapely green-tinted glass bottles even 35 years ago.  The streets were partially Brooklyn, partially SoHo, but many were clearly neater streets in another, cheaper burgh.  But does anyone really notice or care about these details?

One unusual element in the otherwise humdrum spieling of the story was a standout.  That was the much-appreciated wifely support given by Ruth whenever anyone – art gallery owner, prospective buyers – derogated Alex’s canvases, ability, or contemporaneity.  Refreshing.  Likewise, he was in Ruth’s corner when the pedal hit the metal.  It’s been forever since a film has shown such staunch spousal support, and seeing it was a ray of incandescent light in a panorama of backbiting cinema and deplorable TV for decades.

There were some laughs, though not many.  Five Flights Up casts itself as a comedy, but it fits more into the dramedy niche, despite there not being terribly much drama, either.  (Dorothy the dog is quite a good actor, as noted.)  Maybe this is unfair, and we were having a bad morning.  The performances of the snotty New Yorkers were pretty spot-on, though surely not every open house drop-in is this disparaging and thoughtless.  And Freeman remains unnaturally sane throughout the proceedings, ignoring the panic to buy, buy! or sell, sell! when the digits start spiraling into the stratosphere.  Keaton is a slightly toned-down Annie Hall (not surprisingly).

It's inoffensive.  For rural types, this might be a Masters in what selling an apartment in the Big city entails.  For foreigners, ditto.  But someone in the belly of the beast?  Probably a grounded take on this airy aerie would be – maybe a pass on this one, unless you’re a mad-fan of Freeman, Keaton, or Nixon.