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Toronto Film Review: ‘Ruth & Alex’

Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman make for a pleasant couple in Richard Loncraine's conflict-free virgin-cocktail of a movie.

Ruth and Alex Toronto Film Festival

Though they’d never co-starred in a film before, Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton make for a thoroughly warm, whimsical, watchable onscreen couple. They’re so pleasant together, in fact, that Richard Loncraine’s “Ruth & Alex” seems almost terrified of allowing any sort of conflict, drama, or meaningful incident to come between them. Tracing a long weekend in which the titular pair ponder whether or not to sell their Brooklyn apartment, this sticky-sweet virgin cocktail of a movie should attract a decent adult following on the strength of its cast, though one wishes the same cast had ended up with a director who had pushed them to actually do something interesting.

Married for more than four decades, schoolteacher Ruth (Keaton) and painter Alex (Freeman) have spent most of that time living in a gorgeous walkup apartment in Brooklyn, which they bought back when the borough might as well have been in Scandinavia as far as fashionable New Yorkers were concerned. With the neighborhood newly in vogue amongst “hipsters”  Freeman’s pronunciation of that word in voiceover is almost worth the price of admission alone  and the many flights of stairs becoming more of an issue as they age, the couple start to think about selling the place. Ruth’s sharklike real-estate-agent niece (Cynthia Nixon) eagerly steps in, arranging for an open house.

Alex isn’t sure he wants to move, and certainly doesn’t cherish the thought of looky-loo strangers peeking into his studio. Though she’s ostensibly the orchestrator of the sale, Ruth doesn’t seem entirely convinced either, and the screenplay (written by Charlie Peters from Jill Ciment’s novel) never leaves a smidgen of doubt as to what the proper course of action should be. They go through with the process nonetheless, allowing a procession of broad comic types to breeze through and make some offers, and even doing a bit of househunting on their own, quickly finding a Manhattan apartment that they both agree is inferior to their current one, and more expensive too. They make an offer anyway, and bidding wars commence on both sides.

This is all even less exciting and eventful than it sounds, and consequently, two subplots come to dominate rather large chunks of the film. In the first, Ruth and Alex’s senior dog, Dorothy, is hospitalized with a spinal injury, and the couple must decide how far they’re willing to go, and how much they’re willing to spend, to save her  a potentially wrenching conflict, yet one that the film defangs almost immediately by having them quickly agree that “money is no object.”

In the second, an Uzbekistani man leaves a jackknifed fuel truck on the Brooklyn Bridge, prompting the local news media to instinctively label him a terrorist despite no evidence of such, which leads to a citywide manhunt that the film’s characters frequently pause to watch on TV. Though it’s suggested that the incident might drive down home prices, this bit of broad-strokes Fox News satirizing has little obvious relevance to the story, and certainly not enough to justify the amount of screentime it takes up.

The film also allows for a series of flashbacks to the early ‘70s, with Ruth and Alex played as a young, vibrant couple by Claire van der Boom and Korey Jackson. Both actors do well enough to channel the distinctive mannerisms and speech patterns of Keaton and Freeman, respectively, but like their older counterparts, the film doesn’t give them a whole lot to do. The young Ruth is forced to defend her marriage to a black man to her fretful mother in one scene, though otherwise the couple’s racial differences go happily unremarked upon.

Keaton and Freeman’s chemistry goes a long way toward selling this trifle, and whatever it may lack in drama, it is refreshing to see a happy golden-years marriage depicted with such affection onscreen. Nixon doesn’t stray too far from Miranda Hobbes-like neuroticism, but she nonetheless injects a needed dose of energy whenever she’s onscreen.

Helmer of the charmingly unambitious 2004 romantic comedy “Wimbledon,” Loncraine directs with a comparably unobtrusive hand here, giving the picture an amiable vibe that goes down as pleasantly, and as memorably, as a Sunday afternoon nap. Tech contributions are all adequate.

Toronto Film Review: ‘Ruth & Alex’

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations), Sept. 5, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 92 MIN.

  • Production: A Myriad Pictures presentation in association with Manu Propia Entertainment of a Revelations Entertainment, Latitude production.  Produced by Lori McCreary, Curtis Burch, Tracy Mercer, Charlie Powers. Executive producers, Morgan Freeman, Sam Hoffman, Richard Toussaint, Wade Barker, Gary Ellis, Bob Gass, Judy Burch Gass.
  • Crew: Directed by Richard Loncraine. Screenplay, Charlie Peters, based on the novel “Heroic Measures” by Jill Ciment. Camera (color), Jonathan Freeman; editor, Andrew Marcus; music, David Newman; production designer, Brian Morris; costume designer, Arjun Bhasin; sound, Thomas Varga; re-recording mixer, Robert Fernandez; casting, Mary Gail Artz, Shani Ginsberg.
  • With: Morgan Freeman, Diane Keaton, Cynthia Nixon, Carrie Preston, Claire van der Boom, Korey Jackson, Michael Cristofer, Diane Cielsa, Josh Pais, Sterling Jerins.