If nothing else, Richard Loncraine’s 5 Flights Up is noteworthy for a suspense sequence that uniquely revolves around a real-estate negotiation. As a married couple, Ruth (Diane Keaton) and Alex (Morgan Freeman), are on the verge of closing a deal on a new apartment, they sit around a table in their current Brooklyn digs while their broker niece, Lily (Cynthia Nixon), fields call after call. No extraneous diegetic music, no contrived twists—just Lily’s fast-talking phone manner confirming dropped bids and setting up appointments while Ruth and Alex nervously stand by, waiting with baited breath to see whether they’re about to close in on a new apartment.
Too bad the rest of the film isn’t a real-estate thriller, but instead an alternately touching and eye-rolling dramatization of an elderly couple’s troubles upon being uprooted from their longtime apartment. What makes 5 Flights Up occasionally resonate beyond its very New York-based concerns about gentrification is the way it taps into a more-timeless conflict between embracing stasis and risking change. For Ruth and Alex, this manifests itself in the decision to sell their current apartment—in which they’ve lived since the 1970s, right after getting married—and find a new place in Manhattan, much to Alex’s chagrin. Through occasional flashbacks and bits of Alex’s voiceover narration, we get glimpses not only of how they met, but also broader reminiscences of how much their neighborhood has changed and how much Alex will miss it.
In a sense, 5 Flights Up is a variation of sorts on Ira Sachs’s recent Love Is Strange, another film about aging tied to a New York real-estate horror story. But Sachs, for all the tenderness of feeling he brought to his film, wouldn’t have countenanced the stacked-deck sentimentality that lies at this film’s heart. The problems start with Alex’s voiceover narration—principally, the fact that we generally only hear his thoughts. Only once do we get a flashback from Ruth’s perspective; though the film is ostensibly third-person omniscient in its gaze, the preponderance of Alex’s wistful musings compared to barely any from his better half suggests the filmmakers’ implicit endorsement of his perspective over hers. Even the circumstances that have led to this couple’s housing impasse are rigged: To some extent, they’ve been pushed into this by Lily, who’s characterized as basically a shark acting more out of self-interest than altruism. Such easy villainy abounds in 5 Flights Up, right down to the breathtakingly disrespectful tenant couple whose apartment Ruth and Alex are on the verge of buying at its climax.
But perhaps the film’s most offensive bit of manipulation lies in a running plot thread involving a terrorism scare on the Brooklyn Bridge. Perhaps there’s nothing inherently tasteless about the film’s shallow invocation of racial tension stoked in the wake of 9/11, and it does tie neatly to the kind of racism the white Ruth and black Alex had to deal with in the early 1970s in the run-up to their marriage. But it’s the payoff to this plot strand that truly rankles (spoilers herein): When Alex sees the young suspect surrendering to the police on television and finds himself identifying with him, he suddenly decides, then and there, that he wants to stay put. Considering how much the filmmakers make it so that his decision is made unambiguously the most appealing option, stopping to so low a level as using an anonymous minority character as a mere accessory for a more-privileged character’s change of heart is surely the last straw.