‘5 Flights Up’ turns the horror of selling an apartment into a gentle fairy tale


Special To The Japan Times

Living in Tokyo has taught me that relationships matter but real estate matters more. My mom used to tell me never to date anyone who didn’t have a down payment on a condo, which basically doomed me to permanent datelessness.

I never listened and went out a lot and now here I am, wondering if my mother had been right. Everyone I know is a slave to their 35-year mortgage plans, moaning that by the time the house is paid off, they’ll likely be in their 70s.

At least we don’t live in New York City, where the average monthly rent for an apartment is more than $3,500 dollars. And good luck to buyers hoping to stumbling on anything under $300,000 that doesn’t look like a broom closet. For less grounded information about real estate and the city, watch “5 Flights Up,” a wishful-thinking fantasy about long-term relationships and New York apartments. In the real world, of course, the market is brutal and people are awful. Wrinkles will double and nail polish will chip from scanning the classifieds and making the rounds of open houses. Loved ones turn into arguing, bickering trolls.

Suddenly, one may start to kick oneself for not listening to their mother.

Let’s relax. “5 Flights Up,” after all, is a fairy tale — one starring Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman as a Brooklyn couple some 40 years into a loving and happy marriage who suddenly find themselves navigating the dog-eat-dog world of apartment selling and hunting in New York. But miraculously, there’s no fighting or angry tears and certainly no kicking. Just gentle, urbane witticisms and loving inside jokes.

Directed by Richard Loncraine, “5 Flights Up” is very watchable, but also sets up impossibly high expectations about house hunting in the city, and lulls the viewer into a false sense of real estate bliss. Halfway through, however, some of the case-hardened among us may snap out of the reverie and go running out of the theater, screaming. Someone should put a warning label — much like the ones accompanying cigarette ads — before the credits: “House-hunting can destroy your health and sanity. This film is pure fiction, folks. Any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental.”

Now, with that out of the way, let me report that Ruth (Keaton) and Alex (Freeman) are the nicest old couple you can hope to come across, even in the movies. “When Ruth and I first moved to Brooklyn,” muses Alex (in a voice-over narration that’s only slightly annoying), “it was out of fashion … it’s cool now, filled with hipsters.” He says that like an art collector describing some old drawing he picked up at a garage sale that turned out to be an Andy Warhol. Having an apartment like theirs is like holding onto a winning lottery ticket that never expires.

Ruth and Alex had the foresight to buy rather than rent their apartment (“It was all we could afford,” says Alex): a fifth-floor walk-up with a rooftop garden, sunshine streaming through the windows and two — count ’em! — bedrooms. Since buying the house, they have spent the decades saying hello to the local shop owners, going on walks and retaining the lovebird rapport of newlyweds. Still, they’re getting older and the stairs are harder to climb, so they ask Ruth’s real-estate agent niece Lily (Cynthia Nixon from “Sex and the City”) to put the apartment on the market. Lily takes them through the steps of selling an apartment in New York and lectures them on the importance of having the shades pulled up when potential buyers visit: “Light is money, remember that!”

“5 Flights Up” reminds you of all the good things about city living: not having to own a car, living close to the shops, being part of a diverse and vibrant community, etc. There’s a subplot about terrorism and several episodes from the couple’s past about racism, but on the whole it’s an optimistic and pleasant slice of (older) life. And boy does Keaton look great in a New York apartment. Just the sight of her standing in a tiny living room is a statement against suburban life.