You can barely find a story in “5 Flights Up.” Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Only in this instance the celebrated concept of “nothing” may have been reduced to the point of actual nothingness.
Barry Levinson established the concept with his 1982 comedy, “Diner,” which is little remembered these days but has continued to influence a couple generations of creative folks, clearly paving the way for “Seinfeld,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The Office” and much of Judd Apatow’s career.
The concept is to ignore story while concentrating entirely on characters doing the stuff of ordinary life. In recalling his years as a twentysomething guy hanging out in Baltimore diners with buddies, Levinson took the banter and wry observations that movies usually insert between car chases, passionate embraces and high drama and made this central to his movie.
So “5 Flights Up” joins some pretty heady company as being, essentially, about nothing. No character arcs or dramatic momentum. Just people living their lives so that the film ends up right back where it begins.
Since Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton play these characters, few viewers will mind. Any excuse to watch these veteran actors justifies itself. For once though I wish that “nothing” had a little more of, well, something.
Two astute veterans are behind the camera as well. U.K. native Richard Loncrane has directed just about every film genre in his long career while the American writer Charlie Peters has written film scripts and plays with equal aplomb.
They collaborated once previously on a period road-trip comedy starring Renée Zellweger, “My One and Only,” which I much admired at the 2009 Berlin film festival. Unfortunately, the movie never found much traction in North American theaters.
The story in “5 Flights Up” (adapted from a novel by Jill Ciment), if you can call it a story, concerns a long-time married couple, Ruth and Alex Carver. They open their fifth-floor Brooklyn apartment of some 40 years to a realtor, Ruth’s niece Lily (Cynthia Nixon), for an open house.
At an age when climbing five flights of stairs several times a day may soon no longer be an option, the couple has reluctantly decided to sell and relocate.
Alex, who’s a painter, keeps looking at the great room with a view he has converted into a studio and the great garden/urban retreat he has created on the rooftop and asks his wife, “Why are we moving?”
So they suffer through a weekend of looky-loos, each one a mini-disaster in so many ways. Some humor comes from these episodes and Alex can be always counted on for a wry comment under his breath.
To occupy the mind of her increasingly agitated husband, Ruth takes him apartment hunting on the second day, thus reversing the situation where now they’re the looky-loos. Lo and behold, they actually find a fabulous apartment — with an elevator — in Manhattan.
Two subplots interrupt the apartment-hunting now and then. Their dog of ten years suddenly needs serious spinal surgery while much of New York City goes into semi-lockdown due to panic over a possible terrorist at large.
The pet-in-distress subplot seems arbitrary, tossed in to add a touch of unnecessary sentimentality. Meanwhile the terrorist element never finds a home in the movie. You might as well have “Die Hard” playing on a background TV as the apartment-hunters poke around in every room.
Much more welcome interruptions come in flashbacks, mostly from Alex’s point of view, of the couple’s past — their romance, early challenges as a mixed-race couple and the move into this airy, spacious apartment once an iffy ‘hood but now overrun by hipsters pushing up real estate price.
These provide a gratifying portrait of a successful marriage, a thing American movies seldom find any interest in: A few brief scenes — her meeting him as a nude model and being immediately impressed by his sincerity as an artist and an admirer, an art opening early in their life together and her pushback against family’s objections to the marriage — scenes show how quickly and permanently the bond formed between these two.
And how well it has lasted.
(Korey Jackson and Claire van der Boom do superb jobs as young Alex and Ruth, which means they also do superb jobs as reasonably younger editions of Freeman and Keaton, well known mannerisms and all.)
So why are they moving? Well, maybe they won’t and maybe all you get here is a weekend in the life of a well-adjusted couple looking for maladjustments where none exist.
As I say, watching these actors go through their paces is rewarding in itself. They receive commendable support from Nixon, who has perfectly caught every nuance of the ever-so-efficient and only slightly pushy realtor, and Sterling Jerins as a small girl accompanying her apartment-hunting mom who has a couple of amusing encounters with Alex.
Peters certainly stays true to the “cinema of nothing’s” precepts. The focus is always on the kitchen-sink, although in this case it’s on every facet of an apartment, and on the interactions and long-standing attitudes and disputes between two soul mates as they endure a challenging weekend.
Loncraine for his part never pushes things, letting the action and behavior reveal his theme — that being the bliss of a long and happy marriage and how two people can find ways to defuse disagreements and settle quarrels with no hurt feelings.
Not scintillating drama by any stretch but “5 Flights Up” has its charms.
Opens: May 8, 2015 (Focus Features)
Production companies: Myriad Pictures presents in association with Manu Propria Entertainment a Revelations Entertainment and a Latitude production
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Diane Keaton, Cynthia Nixon, Claire van der Boom, Korey Jackson, Sterling Jerins, Carrie Preston, Michael Cristofer, Diae Ciesla, Josh Pais
Director: Richard Loncraine
Screenwriter: Charlie Peters
Based on a novel by: Jill Ciment
Producers: Lori McCreary, Curtis Burch, Tracy Mercer, Charlie Peters
Executive producers: Morgan Freeman, Sam Hoffman, Richard Toussaint, Wade Barker, Gary Ellis, Bob Gass, Judy Burch Gass
Director of photography: Jonathan Freeman
Production designer: Brian Morris
Music: David Newman
Costume designer: Arjun Bhasin
Editor: Andrew Marcus
PG-13 rating, 92 minutes