If there is a single stroke of genius in Richard Loncraine‘s “Ruth & Alex” (and we’re fairly sure there isn’t more than one), it’s that the skin color of the ‘Alex’ of the title (played by Morgan Freeman) makes it impossible to simply write it off as “White People’s Problems: The Movie.” Instead, we’ll have to settle for pointing out its relentless, mind-blowing, potentially world-ending middle-classness. This is a film that has two major dramatic points of interest: whether a cute aging doggy will walk again after a $10,000 operation, and whether the titular couple will get the $950,000 for their Brooklyn apartment in time to put down the deposit on the $930,000 dollar Manhattan apartment they’re impetuously moving to. It’s possibly the lowest-stakes drama ever made — and that’s speaking as a fan of dogs.
After 40 years of marriage, spent living in the same Brooklyn apartment (with a stunning view of the bridge, natch), Ruth (Diane Keaton) and Alex (and their adorable mutt Dorothy), finding the stairs a bit hard to handle, are considering moving and have drafted in niece Lily (2015’s already ubiquitous Cynthia Nixon), an estate agent, for help. They mount an open house, much to Alex’s reluctance, the dog gets sick, an ill-defined TV news story breaks about a jack-knifed lorry on the Williamsburg bridge, and they find a potential new apartment (brokered by “The Good Wife” MVP Carrie Preston, wasted). This stuff, which in most films would take up a couple of scenes at the start is actually everything that happens in the film. Now, far be it from us to promote the Robert McKee-isation of cinema, but we confess we were still waiting for the story to start — for that all-important “inciting incident” — when the end credits rolled.
In the moment, though, it’s quite difficult to hate “Ruth & Alex” as much as a project this pointless and trite deserves, because of the attractive playing of the central pair. Keaton and Freeman share absolutely zero sexual chemistry, but watching them twinkle at each other and ruefully indulge each other’s tiny mood swings is an experience so aggressively engineered for adorability it becomes hypnotic, like a montage of puppies wearing people-clothes and getting into instantly alleviated mini-scrapes of the “goshdurnit” variety. That’s also the film’s worst flaw: as a rare opportunity to present a couple of sixtysomethings as protagonists, it bears the weight of this age group’s underrepresentation elsewhere, and has a kind of responsibility to deliver something insightful, meaningful, human — qualities that the source material, Jill Ciment‘s novel “Five Floors Up,” reportedly displays in abundance. But movie Ruth and movie Alex are not real. There’s nothing real about them, their problems, or their relationship, which seems to consist of them falling in love over and over and over again, each time the one does something nice for the other, which is all the freaking time.
No outside force ever threatens their blissful union, and even their past hurdles (they are a mixed race couple, Ruth cannot have children, Alex has unspecified self-confidence issues relating to his art) are dealt with largely in a couple of tidily compartmentalized flashback scenes, and never referred to again. “We’re not having a discussion,” Ruth says in a rare moment of petulance, “We’re having an argument!” But of course they are not — in the permanently golden-hued Brooklyn they live in, where everyone says hello (seriously, why would anyone leave this Nirvana?), no argument is ever more than an adorable little kitten sneeze of a tiff.
We’re all for the positive portrayal of late-in-life relationships, but make them this sappy and unrealistic, and, far from getting a joyful reaction from the older audience that’s the target here, you run the danger of depressing the hell out of them when they contrast their own lives with this frosted confection. What 40-year relationship can possibly be this ceaselessly forgiving and unendingly tender? What long-married couple still says things like, “Well, this seems to be something you really want,” to each other? What two older people who have spent most of their lives together still so incessantly seek advice, permission, sanction, approval from each other? Still so incessantly chat? Ruth and Alex are infinitely, constantly revealing themselves to each other like mutual mysteries, with each in turn being infinitely, constantly delighted by the other’s latest banal revelation. I mean really? Still? After 40 years?
Loncraine has one terrific credit to his name, in the Ian McKellan-starring adaptation of “Richard III,” but he is also responsible for sludge like “Firewall” and “Wimbledon.” “Ruth & Alex” is definitely in the latter category, no matter how much Keaton and Freeman sell the sap. Without even the teeth (and that’s not a crack about dentures) to make a proper point about gentrification, other than it’s something that happens and makes Morgan Freeman’s voiceover go all wistful, without contending with any actual issues about aging, and certainly without anything new to say about, of all things, media-led terrorism scares which form an undercooked subplot, the film amounts to little more than one long humblebrag about how awesome the central relationship is, and how late-life togetherness is nice. Even more than its cast, who do more with it than they should, “Ruth & Alex” is a film that stars its ampersand. [C-]