Culture

The Long Climb to Civilization: 5 Flights Up

A romantic comedy with authentic — and modest — social consciousness.

Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman take social issues in their stride in the new urban rom-com 5 Flights Up. They portray middle-class retirees Ruth and Alex Carter, who, when urged to sell their longtime Brooklyn residence in a thriving real-estate market, respond to assorted contemporary pressures on issues from housing to connubial faithfulness — what could be called their personal politics.

Unlike The Help, The Butler, Michael Clayton, Syriana, Promised Land, The Descendants, or Up in the Air – all Big Issue movies that presume particular political positions as populist sentiment — 5 Flights Up is not grandstanding Oscar bait making a show of social consciousness. Its modesty — and sincerity — are watchable and satisfying. Keaton and Freeman’s casual warmth and subtle emotional power — qualities that have always defined their best acting — give this film credible modern consciousness. This differs from the above-mentioned movies that flaunt the egotistical excesses of the well-paid stars who promote them as standard-bearers.

5 Flights Up avoids the partisan conceitedness that often polarizes moviegoers. Whenever Ruth or Alex makes an outright social comment, it interestingly occurs only upon reflection. Flashbacks to earlier times show how they first met and clicked as kindred spirits (a brash young lady posing nude for an ambitious painter). Looking back shows how individuals push against social conventions or establish new ones according to their personal longings.        

Not only are Keaton and Freeman temperamentally compatible, they’re artistically matched.

In the present-day scenes, the life Ruth and Alex have made for themselves must contend with social changes that happen against their wishes, without their permission. Several metaphors accomplish this: First, the apartment sale — a destabilizing crisis centered on losing their impressive view of the Williamsburg Bridge plus sufficient window light for Alex to turn the childless couple’s extra room into his painting studio. Next, a crisis involving Ruth’s dog, Dolly, whose age and health problems reflect their own mortality. “She doesn’t know where she is, or where she’s going. Like us,” Alex tells Ruth.

Their veterinarian advises them, “Animals adapt to their fate more willingly than we do” — perhaps too pointedly, but that’s okay when a movie about evolved perspectives and social adaptation is this charming and low-pressure.

Director Richard Loncraine and writer Charlie Peters work in familiar territory — the kind of New York film playwright Neil Simon once specialized in about comic city tensions (The Out-of-Towners, Prisoner of Second Avenue), or even those parochial Woody Allen movies that laid claim to an image of bourgeois white-ethnic New York. But Keaton and Freeman bring a special difference to those “neurotic” views of city life. Loncraine’s image of Ruth and Alex relaxing — and reflecting — on a park bench, with the Williamsburg Bridge in the distance, updates the famous, romantic silhouette in ads for Manhattan – only here with, significantly, an interracial couple.

This is post-9/11 New York, filled with the ethnic diversity some people speciously complained that Woody Allen ignored. But it is also a New York with homeland-security alarms — alluded to in a mostly off-screen subplot about a terrorist whose major threat (horrors!) is to lower property values. The title 5 Flights Up is resonant for most pre-condo city dwellers, yet the film is unfazed by the passing chaotic parade. It recalls the sensibility of America’s most socially conscious filmmaker, Raymond De Felitta (Two Family House, Rob the Mob, City Island), whose movies are extraordinary for offering felt, perceptive accounts of how New Yorkers manage their personal and social interactions.

#related#De Felitta might have made this film even better, but short of his genuinely humane touch, Keaton and Freeman provide comparable emotional richness. Annie Hall’s randy flirtation has given way to passionate wisdom, and Freeman’s early-career menace has blended with his late-career sagacity into mellow strength. Their rom-com rapport is not, pardon the expression, “flighty,” but evidence that love and marriage outlast youthful sexual heat.

Not only are Keaton and Freeman temperamentally compatible, they’re artistically matched. In their own late middle age, they achieve the kind of social boldness few of Hollywood’s most ostentatious politicos have dared. Where’s the interracial or mixed-income, class-crossing romance from George Clooney, Matt Damon, or Brad Pitt?

Keaton (who is 69) and Freeman (who is 78), having reached the accumulated learning, poise, and independence of veteran movie stars, don’t hammer at political correctness; although some form of it may be in the social consciousness of their generation (“We got married when it was illegal in 30 states and people kept staring at us in the other 20”). So they repeat the same bold challenge to Hollywood’s still-segregated conventions that Charlton Heston did when romancing Rosalind Cash in 1971’s The Omega Man – a rarely remarked-upon demonstration of American democratic beliefs. And one that Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy faced up to in Stanley Kramer’s 1967 Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – a socially conscious race comedy that today’s liberal film critics dismiss as sentimental. In 5 Flights Up, Keaton and Freeman show a firm grasp of sentiment as well as of social and personal consciousness. Their modesty is superior to the grandstanding of contemporary Hollywood politics. This is not progressivism, it’s an advance.

The ultimate disappointment of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s zombie movie, Maggie, is that it never becomes allegorical. The story of a man saving his teenage daughter after she has contracted the zombie virus that devastates their Southwestern community follows the commercial zombie genre with dull repetition. Any possibility that Terminator Arnold might save another heartless, brain-dead, self-involved generation (as if offering counter-instruction to the millennial audience fascinated with images of its own deterioration) dies with every leaden second.

Any possibility that Terminator Arnold might save another heartless, brain-dead, self-involved generation … dies with every leaden second.

My first disappointment was that this was not an adaptation of Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Instead, Maggie (Abigail Breslin) is an uninteresting brat not unlike Breslin’s obnoxious tot in Little Miss Sunshine (a film too simpleminded to need subverting). My second disappointment was Henry Hobson’s directing debut — sticking to a dull visual palette and routine shock effects that show none of his background in graphics. Maggie is another case of apocalyptic naturalism; that is, Hobson resigns himself to the all-too-common ugly, hopeless sense of humanity as a TV series that specializes in run-of-the-mill negativity. Even if zombie nihilism is your idea of fun, Maggie betrays the fundamental necessity of entertainment: to provide controlled energy and to invigorate interest..

— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.

 

 

 

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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