British director Richard Loncraine’s Ruth & Alex is like a warm blanket on a chilly day. Whilst it may be well worn and a little threadbare in places, it is familiar and comforting nonetheless.
Long-married couple Ruth and Alex Carver (Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman) crossed the threshold of their Brooklyn walkup in the 70s and had never considered stepping back until the five flights of stairs begin to trouble weary legs, both human and canine – ailing border terrier Dorothy completing the family unit. With the help of commission-hungry realtor niece, Lily (Cynthia Nixon – Miranda from Sex and the City), tentative toes are dipped into the cutthroat waters of the New York real estate market but alas they are soon in deep water.
The film poses the age old questions of what makes a house a home and what is truly important in life; it is schmaltzy, sentimental fare but sometimes chicken soup therapy is necessary.
The obligatory opening Morgan Freeman voiceover (is narration written into every one of his contracts?) tells of the forty years the artist and retired teacher have lived in Brooklyn and its evolution from bohemian outpost to hipster village. Ruth is keen to move but Alex is stuck in his ways. Gazing out on the East River and Willamsburg Bridge he wonders whether his next studio will have a view, or even a window? Very existential.
Tragedy strikes when the beloved Dorothy falls ill and needs an expensive operation. How will they afford the surgery? Surely another reason to sell the apartment. Definitely something to say “Oh no, but she’s such a cute little dog” about.
It is on the aforementioned bridge that a gas truck jackknifes and introduces a subplot that disjoints the rest of the film. The driver, who has the misfortune of being both a Muslim and from Uzbekistan (which is basically I-raq, right?), abandons his charge and flees the scene, probably for fear of being fired and/or deported. All media outlets and gawping, unquestioning New Yorkers assume he is a terrorist and that another 9/11 is imminent. You’ll excuse my left wing liberalism but the automatic assumption that a truck driver from the Middle East who is Muslim must also be a terrorist is deplorable. Had he been from the Bronx would anyone have batted an eyelid?
Using such an event and the threat of a subsequent drop in the housing market (what?!) to add impetus to the plot and some tension to the big sale beggars belief. Why Loncraine chose to tap in to racial profiling and afford it such substantial screen time is beyond me.
As well as distracting the “plague of locusts” that descend on Ruth and Alex’s all important open house, the big news detracts from the central love story and charming performances by Keaton and Freeman. Neither actor has had to stretch themselves here but they are two people comfortable in their own skin and with one another onscreen. They stroll around the city as if it were a small town and make the orange seats of the metro look like armchairs, so at ease they are with their surroundings.
Several flashbacks fill in the story of their nascent relationship, the troubles they had as a young interracial couple, Alex’s artistic woes and their inability to have a child. Claire van der Boom (feisty, principled and supportive) and Korey Jackson (gentle, caring and considerate) demonstrate traits that are echoed in the present and it is a shame that the terrorism nonsense usurps time that the younger duo deserved.
The final act has all the melodrama of an extended home-selling program. Bogged down in the complications of a bidding war and incessant phone calls, the film runs out of the limited steam it had and doesn’t have a great deal to say other than dissuading anyone from ever trying to buy an apartment in Manhattan. Lily (Nixon) is nails-down-a-chalkboard awful but perhaps she is supposed to be. The majority of people seeking to buy or sell are equally despicable.
Only the ethereal and instantly likeable Zoe (Sterling Jerins) stands out. Attending the viewings with her quirky mother, she appreciates Alex’s artwork and is wise beyond her years. Is she perhaps an apparition of the child that he longed for? The same could be said for Dorothy. I’m clutching at straws.
Freeman and Keaton make this film worth watching. Knowing looks between their characters suggest that they have one up on all those around them and I suspect the actors felt the same. They’ve never needed any additional window dressing to impress so why start now.
Ruth & Alex is released in UK cinemas on 24th July.