By Stephen Mayne @finalreel
At least Ruth & Alex knows its strengths, opening with a patented Morgan Freeman voiceover, before offering the gentle pleasures of Freeman and Diane Keaton hanging out together in New York. It hardly makes up for the mess on display elsewhere as a tangle of sub-plots generate an awful lot of noise without saying very much at all.
Keaton and Freeman are the title’s Ruth and Alex, a happily married couple living in a beautiful New York apartment without a lift. She’s spent a lifetime teaching, he’s a portrait artist who works from home. The without a lift part is key here. With old age already upon them, they reluctantly decide to sell up and find somewhere more accessible. It’s a simple premise, one that could have been done well had director Richard Loncraine and writer Charlie Peters not stuffed in so many half-hearted tangents.
Adapted from Jill Ciment’s novel, Heroic Measures, Peters’ stuffs away past breaking point, weaving little more than a list of bullet-points into the story. On top of the general problems that come with age, there’s the prejudice surrounding interracial marriage, the heartbreak of an inability to have children, the worry surrounding their sick dog’s operation, the fear from a potential terrorist loose in the nearby area, and the tiring need to have to accommodate a roll-call of wacky characters swinging by the open house set up by niece and realtor Lily (Cynthia Nixon). It’s enough to fill a lifetime, all packed into 90 minutes.
No single problem is ever given more than a cursory glance. The possible terrorist story is a particularly egregious example as people break suddenly to watch the latest news, and discuss how terrible it all is, before the film cuts to protect anyone from having to say anything of substance. And if it looks like things might be getting a little intense, Freeman’s dulcet tones come back in voiceover form to soothe concerns, or the two of them head out for an affable evening reflecting on their past together. It all creates a lot of bustle for practically zero dramatic impact.
Attempts to add levity hardly fare better, producing another poorly fleshed out set of bullet point ideas. The open house setting becomes an opportunity to wheel a series of mediocre comedy sketches through the apartment. There’s out-of-control trainee seeing eye dogs, ineffectual parenting, a woman who insists on lying down in the dark on every bed she spots, and a couple angry that people keep getting in their way while they try to watch the news (the terrorist story of course). It’s all just as rushed as the supposedly more substantial moments.
Loncraine must be thanking the Gods that Keaton and Freeman signed on. They are the bright spot providing a degree of distraction from the weak screenplay, honeyed colouring and shots of the couple framed on benches against Manhattan bridges. The magic can’t be in the characters as flashbacks to their youth, with Claire van der Boom and Korey Jackson as young Ruth and Alex, are nowhere near as enjoyable. Keaton is sparky and confident, Freeman a lovable curmudgeon; nothing new but still effective. Watching them complaining about veterinary bills or getting exasperated as they hit the apartment hunting trail themselves is far more entertaining than the material has any right to be.
Two extremely good actors cannot alone rescue a film. At best, they paper over cracks. There are little bursts when they do just that, but sooner or later, someone is going to step on the crack and fall right through. In Ruth & Alex, try as they might, even Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman can’t prevent that.
Ruth & Alex was released theatrically July 24th.