‘Ruth & Alex’: Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman in Toronto for 'Ruth & Alex'
Good casting gives this amiable work curb appeal, but the script is a bit of fixer-upper

Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton play a semi-retired couple dipping their toes in the real-estate market at Cynthia Nixon’s behest in this New York-shot comedy-drama

Morgan Freemanand Diane Keaton play a long-married couple who put their Brooklyn apartment on the market in Ruth & Alex, an amiable comedy-drama that raises its curb appeal with fine casting of both the leads and the supports. Director Richard Loncraine’s film needs the ensemble as an extra selling point since the script, adapted by Charlie Peters from Jill Ciment’s novel Heroic Measures -- while structurally perfectly sound, even insightful at times -- has a tendency to go soft and self-congratulatory too often. Nevertheless, the reliably popular marquee-name stars will attract ticket buyers, especially in metropolitan areas and from the increasingly powerful mature demographic.

The eponymous Ruth (Keaton) and Alex (Freeman) have lived in a spacious, light-filled Williamsburg apartment for nearly 40 years, ever since they married in the 1970s. But their digs are many flights of stairs up, and while they’re both spry enough to make the climb now, Ruth worries that it won’t be so easy for them in the future. Even their adorable dog, a wiry wee terrier named Dorothy, has developed back trouble. It turns out that she’ll need expensive surgery, prompting a sub-plot that weaves smoothly in and out of action throughout.

Pressured by Ruth’s pushy real-estate-agent niece Lily (Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon, sporting exactly the right kind of choppy haircut and brittle, phony smile), they’ve agreed to put the apartment on the market and host an open house this weekend. Alex, a successful painter, grudgingly agrees to tidy up his studio, while Ruth gets busy brewing cinnamon sticks to make the house smell “homey,” although Alex suggests it makes the place smell like a brothel.

Soon they’re overrun with visitors inspecting the property. Some are serious, like a lesbian couple (Maddie Corman and Miriam Shor) with a hyperactive seeing-eye dog in training. But some just want to exploit the chance to invade other people’s homes, like one woman (Ilana Levine) who insists on lying down on Alex and Ruth’s bed to try it out, while her pre-adolescent daughter (Sterling Jerins) makes herself at home in Alex’s studio.

Others can’t stop turning on the TV to see the news report about a truck driver who abandoned his rig on the Williamsburg Bridge, snarling up traffic for miles. A hysterical manhunt has been mounted to find him because his Uzbek origins have led some to suspect, on absolutely no evidence, that he’s a terrorist. With ice-cold calculation, Lily reassures Alex and Ruth that while the traffic jam is bad for their open house day, the terrorism issue is not necessarily a problem since she knows a realtor who sold a Tribeca loft the day after 9/11.

It’s the spicy little splashes of black humor like this that give the film a bit of needed tang, as do the smartly-observed ancillary characters, colorful types who just avoid caricature status, like Jackie Hoffman’s seen-it-all gawker, amusingly named “The ‘Eh’ Lady” in the credits. More problematic are the stretches where the script feels a need to score high-minded points against, for instance, the morally bankrupt but cash-rich people who work in the financial sector (a soft target these days), or common bigots (a more deserving mark).

The film’s biggest departure from the source novel is to make Ruth and Alex a bi-racial couple (they’re elderly Jews in the original). In the first part of the film, no one even blinks at their mixed marriage, which is rather delightful and in keeping with contemporary mores. But then the flashbacks kick in, and younger versions of Alex and Ruth (played by Korey Jackson and Claire van der Boom, respectively) are handed noble speeches about how their marriage would be illegal in 30 states. Presumably, the filmmakers want to underscore a point about how much views about intermarriage have evolved, just the way gentrification has reshaped neighborhoods and property values, but it feels tacked on and preachy.

It also distracts from the impressive way Jackson and especially van der Boom channel the mannerisms of Freeman and Keaton without resorting to outright mimicry. Both couples have a smooth, palpable chemistry, one that feels enriched with the tannins of long-maintained love in the case of the older couple. At one point, Freeman’s Alex hums a song as gets ready for bed and Keaton’s Ruth takes up the tune as she reads, an absolutely lovely moment that says everything about the contented harmony of their relationship.

Moments like that bring to mind similarly thoughtful bits of business that can be found in director Richard Loncraine’s best films, such as his justly praised Shakespeare adaptation Richard III or his underrated comedies My One and Only and Wimbledon. His direction here is understated but generous, not just towards its affable, endearing leads but towards the supporting players and the city itself, in every way a character in its own right.

Production companies: A Myriad Pictures presentation in association with Manu Propria Entertainment of a Revelations Entertainment, Latitude Production

Cast: Morgan Freeman, Diane Keaton, Cynthia Nixon, Michael Cristofer, Claire van der Boom, Korey Jackson, Carrie Preston, Alysia Reiner, Sterling Jerins, Josh Pais, Miriam Shor

Director: Richard Loncraine

Screenwriter: Charlie Peters, based on a novel by Jill Ciment

Producers: Lori McCreary, Charlie Peters, Curtis Burch, Tracy Mercer

Executive producers: Morgan Freeman, Sam Hoffman, Richard Toussaint, Bob Gass, Judy Burch Gass, Wade Barker, Gary Ellis

Director of photography: Jonathan Freeman

Production designer: Brian Morris

Costume designer: Arjun Bhasin

Editors: Andrew Marcus

Composer: David Newman

 

Rated PG, 91 minutes

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