Amiable but little more than that, “5 Flights Up” is a small-scaled domestic dramedy that’s about on the level of a Hallmark Hall of Fame special except for the fact that it boasts major stars in Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton. It goes down easily enough, despite the fact that the lack of an elevator is a major plot point, but doesn’t add up to much.
Charlie Peters’ script unfolds over the course of a couple of days, which begin with Alex (Freeman), a painter, returning from a shopping trip with the couple’s dog Dorothy in tow. Enthusing in Freeman’s melodious voiceover about the Brooklyn neighborhood where they’ve lived for forty years, Alex gets winded walking the five flights of stairs while prodding Dorothy, in obvious pain, to follow. In short order he expresses his anxiety about the next day, when he and his wife Ruth (Keaton), are expecting prospective buyers for their apartment in an open house arranged by their niece (Cynthia Nixon), real estate agent. But he’s also concerned about Dorothy, whom he and Ruth rush to their vet (Maury Ginsberg), who prescribes a CAT scan and, eventually, surgery for a ruptured disc—procedures that together will run to more than $10,000.
To the present-day domestic drama, the film adds occasional flashbacks to the couple’s past, most from Alex’s perspective. In most the characters are played by younger actors, Korey Jackson and Claire van der Boom, though in a few Freeman and Keaton play their younger selves. These allow us to see them meeting and deciding to wed (one shows the negative reaction of Ruth’s family to the idea of her marrying a black man), as well as from their married years (another shows the entrance of Dorothy into their lives).
When the plot continues into the next morning, new threads join the phone conversations with the vet and the arrival of various purchasers interested in the place. One, which continuously interrupts the through-line and is presented as something that might negatively impact the sales price on their place, involves a terrorist incident that closes down the Brooklyn Bridge while authorities frantically search for the perpetrator. A second focuses on the couple’s decision to search for a new apartment—one with an elevator—to buy should theirs sell. While visiting possibilities they inevitably run into folks whom they’d met at their own apartment, like a precocious young girl Sterling Jerins) and a grim-faced lady who’s “just looking” as research for a book. Eventually they find one in Manhattan that Ruth, in particular likes—and has a rival agent (Carrie Preston) in charge, something that will send their niece into a tizzy. The end of the picture juxtaposes their bids on the Manhattan place with the ones coming in on theirs, and connects both of them with the capture of the accused terrorist, which takes an emotional toll on Alex. The conclusion brings matters full circle, with the problems that had caused the couple’s original decision to move conveniently forgotten, though Dorothy isn’t.
Peters’ script, based on a novel by Jill Ciment, is of no great moment—and the insertion of the terrorist subplot becomes an increasingly crass way of giving it some deeper meaning. But director Richard Loncraine handles things with a generally light hand (though the culmination of the apartment-switching toward the close comes off leadenly), and gives Freeman and Keaton ample opportunity to indulge in their familiar, but still enjoyable, shtick. He also secures sharp supporting turns from Nixon and Preston, and from most of the supporting cast, including Tanner, the cute-as-a-button Border terrier that plays Dorothy. The NYC locations are nicely caught in widescreen by cinematographer Jonathan Freeman, but David Newman’s score is too jangly in its efforts to be quirkily upbeat.
“5 Flights Up” is an agreeable tale of an aging couple caught up in vagaries of the New York real-estate market. But for depth and insight, it doesn’t come close to Ira Sach’s “Love Is Strange,” which dealt with the subject in a far more profound way.