May 15th 2015
The New York Times
Soon after they married in the mid-1970s, a promising young artist and his schoolteacher wife moved into a rundown two-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a walk-up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. For 40 years, amid canvasses and clutter, it was home sweet home.
But now the couple’s once-dodgy neighborhood is hipper than hip, and their once marginal apartment is worth a small fortune. They’re getting older, and the stairs seem to be getting steeper by the climb. So maybe, maybe, it’s time to sell and move to an elevator building in Manhattan.
Such is the premise of “5 Flights Up,” a new movie starring Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton as Alex and Ruth Carver, an aging couple tentatively considering a major life change. Cynthia Nixon plays Ruth’s niece, Lily, a gung-ho real estate broker who has the listing for the Carvers’ apartment. She advises the couple to boil a cinnamon stick in preparation for an open house, to create “a homey feeling,” and is given to market commentary like “Dog eat dog. If you snooze you lose.”
Traditionally, Hollywood has viewed real estate agents in much the way it views dentists, lawyers and used-car salesmen. Which is to say, really, really unfavorably. From “The Cocoanuts” to “Wall Street,” “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “American Beauty” and “Duplex,” brokers are portrayed as an unsavory lot, a blend of underhanded and overweening, guided more by self-interest than by their clients’ needs.
Some New York real estate brokers who saw “5 Flights Up” laughed as they watched Ms. Nixon. Others were horrified. Spoiler alert: At one point, the broker swears at her clients.
“You do not swear at clients,” said Lois Planco, a saleswoman at Compass. “At least, you do not swear at clients to their faces.”
Some dismissed Ms. Nixon’s portrayal as a caricature, while others said it simply reinforced negative stereotypes. “Watching Cynthia Nixon, was I embarrassed to be in the business? You bet,” said Frances Katzen, an associate broker at Douglas Elliman.
Steven O. Goldschmidt, a senior vice president of Warburg Realty, recoiled at a suggestion by Ms. Nixon’s character that one of the rooms could easily be converted into a nursery, a no-no under fair housing laws. “Most brokers,” Mr. Goldschmidt said, “are trained to steer clear of any descriptions or hints of possible usage that would indicate a preference for couples with children, or a bias against them.”
Then there were those who said that Ms. Nixon’s pushy, brash, anything-for-a-transaction manner reminded them of certain colleagues. Not that they’d name names, of course.
And all the professionals pointed out the liberties that the filmmakers took in their depiction of real estate transactions. Such creative license included scenes of deal-making without due diligence and open houses with the sellers in attendance (a bad idea for obvious reasons), as well as prospective buyers who make themselves right at home — at a seller’s home.
“In real life, no one is turning on a television or taking a nap in the master bedroom or flipping the light switches on and off at an open house,” said Ann Cutbill Lenane, an associate broker at Douglas Elliman, referring to a sequence in the movie. “But it plays to the worries of real-life sellers, who think people are going to be going into their dresser drawers and trying on their underwear.”
Further, several agents complained, the open house at the Carvers’ apartment was absurdly well attended. “I should only have so many people at one of my open houses,” said Wendy J. Sarasohn, an associate broker at Brown Harris Stevens. “That crowd was like people waiting for the new iPhone.”
Clean up, de-clutter, raise the shades to let the light in — so Cynthia Nixon’s character told her clients. Sound advice, Ms. Nixon’s real-life counterparts agreed.
“She had a lot of the good traits of a broker: her enthusiasm and energy, the way she balanced everything and kept track of everything,” Ms. Sarasohn said. “But I thought she was incredibly insensitive to her clients, encouraging them to sell when they clearly weren’t ready.”
Caroline Bass, an associate broker at Citi Habitats, said she found it upsetting to watch Ms. Nixon’s character. “I thought she was pretty aggressive, especially considering that the clients were her family,” she said. “She seemed totally out for herself and out for a commission.”
Upsetting, yes, said Kathy Braddock, a managing director at William Raveis New York City. “But unfortunately not so very far off the mark.”
“Ours is an industry that has struggled to maintain a high level of professionalism,” Ms. Braddock continued. “This is a very undisciplined work force. If you have a friend or a family member who’s a broker and you don’t use that broker when you’re selling or buying an apartment, she’ll stop talking to you. There’s this very entitled sense of ‘you owe me — you have to work with me.’ My doctor and lawyer friends aren’t offended if I don’t go to them. In fact, they’d prefer to refer me to a colleague, because we are friends.”
Still, for Ms. Lenane at least, “5 Flights Up” was something akin to a continuing education course. “People buy real estate at the highest and lowest times of their lives,” she said. “And it was useful for me to be reminded how traumatic the whole process is. A broker should be a buffer and do a lot of hand-holding.”
The filmmakers used a walk-up on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for the exterior shots of the Carvers’ apartment. The interiors were shot on a set at Steiner Studios in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard.
“You know,” said Lori McCreary, one of the movie’s producers, “I’m getting a little nervous that someone seeing the movie is going to ask where the apartment is and want to buy it and move in.”
There was no real estate broker consultant on the set of “5 Flights Up,” Ms. McCreary said. “But my parents were both sales agents in California, and my father used to bake cookies for open houses,” she recalled, adding that the director of the movie, Richard Loncraine, did canvass several real estate brokers, “to make sure we were in the ballpark about apartment prices.”
They were certainly in the ballpark about the subject that so utterly absorbs the locals. “I didn’t realize what a topic of conversation real estate is in New York,” Ms. McCreary said. “Our whole crew was talking about it.”