Alex (Morgan Freeman), an artist, and Ruth (Diane Keaton), a schoolteacher, have been married for 40 years. They love their spacious Brooklyn apartment that is filled with light and has a view of the Brooklyn Bridge. But more and more, they are both feeling the aches and pains of old age as they trudge up the five flights of stairs. Even their beloved dog Dorothy finds the trek difficult.
They are divided as to whether or not to sell the apartment and find a place with an elevator. Their neighborhood has gentrified, and they can sell for a lot of money. She thinks it is time to move and he doesn't, given his deep affection for the room that houses his studio. Ruth's niece Lily (Cynthia Nixon), an ambitious real estate agent, pushes them to put the apartment on the market and to host an open house on the weekend. Alex is ordered to clean up his work space while Ruth follows Lily's advice to brew cinnamon sticks to make the place smell "homey."
But a series of unplanned incidents puts the couple into a tailspin. First, Dorothy gets sick and they are told she needs a $10,000 spinal operation. Then panic overtakes everyone in the neighborhood when a Uzbekistani man abandons a fuel truck on the Brooklyn Bridge and the local news broadcasters brand him a possible terrorist. Needless to say, Lily is worried that this incident might drive prices down and spoil her sale.
Director Richard Loncraine (Wimbledon) does a fine job orchestrating this comedy. He nicely mixes in flashbacks of young Alex (Korey Jackson) and young Ruth (Claire van der Boom) in the early years of their bi-racial relationship. Charlie Peters, who has adapted the screenplay from a novel by Jill Ciment, has fun with a small group of prospective buyers who come to see the apartment: a lesbian couple (Maddie Corman and Miriam Shor), who have trouble with a hyperactive dog they are training, a pushy woman (Ilana Levine) who insists she can't make a decision until she lies down on the bed, and her loquacious daughter (Sterling Jerins) strikes up a conversation with Alex in his studio.
At the heart and soul of 5 Flights Up is the love relationship between Alex and Ruth. Zen masters speak of the development of plum-blossom courage. The plum blossom appears soft and glowing, even when the winter winds still blow. It knows, deep in its essence, that spring is almost here, even without outside agreement. The plum blossom symbolizes the resilience of the human spirit, its ability to open again to love and go forward into another opportunity for celebration.
Alex and Ruth have highly developed plum-blossom courage. In a magical moment it is expressed when Alex hums a song while getting ready for bed and Ruth picks up the tune as she continues reading her book. They are in sync in their imperfect marriage and by the end of their story, we are confident that they will do what's right for them no matter what anyone else thinks or says.