From the God-like narrator of “March of the Penguins” (2005) to the huckster of Visa cards on TV commercials, Morgan Freeman excels in the art of voice-over. Sometimes, it seems, to the detriment of the art he does best — acting. He does a little of both in Richard Loncraine’s geriatric comedy “5 Flights Up.” Paired with Diane Keaton, the duo provide a bit of wit and warmth amid the contrived subplots and the self-satisfied moralism.
The voice-over comes first. As Alex Carver, a painter who’s lived in the same fifth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn for 40 years, he has watched the neighborhood evolve from seedy bohemian refuge to gentrified yuppie enclave. Ruefully, he shares with the viewer his crotchety observations on the BMWs, Starbucks, cellphones, and “baby strollers that cost as much as a Chevy” that mark the transition.
One positive outcome of this change is that the apartment he and his wife, Ruth (Keaton), bought back in the day is now worth nearly a million. Prodded by Ruth’s pushy real estate agent niece (Cynthia Nixon), they decide to put the place on the market to see how it fares. After all, those flights aren’t getting any shorter, and Alex and Ruth aren’t getting any younger.
Then comes the open house, and the oddball and obnoxious parade of buyers and lookie-loos. The expected commentary follows, but this time not from Alex’s voice-over, but from the couple’s conspiratorial observations, done in the shorthand of people who have lived together for such a long time. Keaton and Freeman play off each other expertly and their interchanges tell a lot about what their lives together have meant.
Is this enough for a movie? Nicole Holofcener made a brilliant black comedy out of a similar New York real estate dilemma with “Please Give” (2010). The filmmakers in this case, however, feel obliged to add supplementary narratives to pad their property.
First, Alex and Ruth’s dog comes down with an iffy and expensive medical problem. Though seemingly digressive, this diversion reveals nuances in the couples’ relationship — such as how Ruth can manipulate Alex into following his natural impulses instead of obeying the dictates of seeming common sense.
Not so effective are the flashbacks to the couple 40 years ago. Not only do these scenes lack any sense of the period being depicted, but Claire van der Boom and Korey Jackson don’t compare well to Keaton and Freeman in their prime.
Finally — do they really need to include terrorism? Every TV set is alit with breaking news about a possible terrorist at large, and the only thing people worry about is what that will do to property values. Talk about not getting your priorities straight.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.