Sunday 19 July 2015

Housebound: "Ruth & Alex"

Like last year's My Old Lady, Ruth & Alex - a film that formerly traded under the title 5 Flights Up - is one of those property pickles written and directed by baby boomers for the enjoyment of those audiences old enough and prosperous enough to never again have to worry about making rent: there is a lot of talk about "the market", a non-exciting setpiece as realtor Cynthia Nixon juggles offers from rival bidders, and a general sense of a film operating in its own little bubble. "We're all struggling," sighs Morgan Freeman's Alex, on the verge of seeing his bank account boosted by a sum in the vicinity of a million dollars, leading everybody within earshot to wonder whether some people's struggles might, in the grand scale of things, be greater than others.

Freeman and Diane Keaton are an artist-writer couple who, after forty years of residency, are selling their top-floor Williamsburg flat; it's not a penthouse, as such, although there are frequent trips to the roof garden. This established, we are encouraged to consider what forms a more immediate threat to the success of the pair's upcoming open house, and therefore their financial wellbeing: the plight of Keaton's pet dog Dorothy, who slips a disc on the eve of the big event? The presence of a supposedly radicalised Muslim at large in their neighborhood, a clumsily handled strand meant to evoke the growing threat non-Caucasians supposedly pose to older viewers whose only contact with the outside world comes through 24-hour news cycles? Or Freeman's happy memories of the time the pair have spent in this place?

You can feel old-hand Richard Loncraine - a director who's been on quite the wander since 1975's Slade in Flame - striving with his leads to work up an appealing portrait of blissful inner-city domesticity: Diane does the hoovering, while Morgan watches TV with his slippered feet up. (Feminist-minded viewers might question how exactly far the American cinema has come since the days of Annie Hall and Louise Bryant.) Yet the material's agenda is exposed when the young couples who turn up to view the flat turn out to be such obvious, two-dimensional jerks and flakes. In this, Ruth & Alex unexpectedly chimes with the widely respected Amour, where old timers were presented as fonts of wisdom, culture and tolerance, and everybody else was considered to form a grasping, venal advance party for the apocalypse.

There's the makings of a sharp black comedy in the idea of a couple who inadvertently find themselves under siege, but both the writing and the handling here slide towards cosiness: of course Freeman is encouraged to share his innermost thoughts in voiceover form, but even Silver Screen habituees might find themselves growing restless at the lack of anything like real drama, and the unwavering tone of conservatism means the ending can be guessed from a distance of several miles. As this pair start to look around for a new place of their own, Ruth & Alex's ninety minutes extend into what feels like a lifetime: it really is a film that replicates all the fun of flathunting, entertainment only for those viewers apt to carry their cherished portfolios into the cinema with them. And don't these people have enough already?

Ruth & Alex opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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