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Review: Ruth & Alex (5 Flights Up)

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Discovering Morgan Freeman‘s presence in a film is like coming home. His smooth voice and low vowel sounds improve any project. Plus he makes for an excellent foil to high energy actors like Diane Keaton, equally loveable for different reasons, so I was looking forward to reviewing Ruth and Alex (or 5 Flights Up depending on where in the world you’re watching it).

Unfortunately, neither of these treasures can elevate Ruth and Alex from being anything more than a run-of-the-mill piece designed to appeal to the Grey Pound. It’s not without merits, but I longed for a bolder exploration of the themes it skirts around.

These themes are threefold: selling apartments, how the media hyperventilates over suspected terrorism and the health of an ageing dog. That might sound like the makings of a fractured plot, but director Richard Loncraine (Wimbledon) weaves these disparate pieces together with ease. Set over a long weekend in Brooklyn, NYC, the film is based on the NYT bestseller Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment, a story that was told (as is often the case) with much more breadth in the book.

Ruth (Keaton) is married to artist Alex (Freeman). Their niece and estate agent/realtor Lilly (Cynthia Nixon) values their two-bedroom loft at $1million, an amount of money which would help Ruth and Alex in their old age. They decide to advertise it for sale with an open house. While narcissistic buyers look around, Ruth’s dog Dorothy takes ill, and needs to undergo a delicate operation. As Ruth and Alex race to the veterinary hospital, a tanker gets stuck on the Williamsburg bridge, an obstacle to their journey and to the flat sale. The driver of the tanker is missing and many buyers assume that he is a terrorist, based on his Arab appearance emphasised on news reports. Ruth and Alex stand firm, wanting to support their ailing pup, only sell to people they share values with and not make snap judgements about the tanker driver. Tension ramps up as the couple must decide who to sell to and find out if Dorothy makes it through surgery before time runs out, all while watching events unfold on the bridge.

That’s the plot. The real story in Ruth & Alex is the prejudices faced by Ruth and Alex as a mixed-race couple in a country with such entrenched attitudes towards race. This is only ever alluded to via a series of flashbacks, and Freeman and Keaton are never given enough emotion to work with, a shame. The film also casts its eye over ageism and the power of money without ever letting its gaze linger. Had Loncraine chosen to emphasise the terrorism angle and play down the house shenanigans, this might have been a film with more bite. As it is, it’s a nice tract about values wrapped up in a love letter to Brooklyn.

Ruth and Alex is out on DVD in the UK now. Wimbledon fans will enjoy it, but those Grey Pounders deserve better.

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