Tower Heist may not be the smartest comedy on the city block, but it does deliver. Brett Ratner grabs three comedic has-beens (Stiller, Broderick and Murphy) and squeezes joyful, juicy performances out of them. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. When was the last time you looked into Eddie Murphy’s eyes and saw anything beside the cold green gleam of cash?
Played like a screwball comedy throwback, Tower Heist spins a fable of class struggle writ for contemporary woes, featuring a New York power player, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) getting comeuppance at the hands of those employees whose pensions he evaporated –along with the rest of his fortune—when he tried to pull off a Ponzi scheme. These put-out worker bees are the staff of ‘The Tower’, a luxury highrise owend by Shaw, who lives at the top in a lavish penthouse that also contains Steve McQueen’s 1953 Ferrari.
According to a feisty FBI agent, there was more than 20 million dollars of assets missing at the time of Shaw’s arrest.The plan, engineered by Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller), the building manager, involves breaking into Shaw’s apartment and finding those assets. Kovacs and his team, made up mostly of disgruntled employees, plan the heist over Thanksgiving Day, when the Macy’s parade can provide appropriate cover and escape.
On the script level, Tower Heist is rushed and silly, borrowing several tropes from Frank Capra and Stanley Kramer movies to hide its naked bits. The on-the-nose premise, with its Wall Street fat cat bad guys and without-blame working stiffs, ends up getting dropped in favor of oddball antics and insanely contrived stunts. In the wake are myriad plot holes and character motivations left flopping forgotten on the pavement. The movie simply doesn’t add up narratively, even if Ratner and his team manage to make you forget that fact up until the credits roll.
But if the sceenplay, by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson, is a rush job with fractured internal logic, Tower Heist ends up as mostly big fun because Ratner manages all the individual pieces with an energy and delicacy lacking in many of his big-budget action bonanzas. Ratner’s Family Man is an underrated holiday treat and Tower Heist featuers some of that same sensitivty—completely lacking in the Rush Hours and X-Men 3—while smoothly accomodating a large ensemble cast with ease.
Watching this group of actors running around the jungle gym that is this movie, relaxing, having fun, and revising their craft, is worth the admission price. Stiller’s Kovacs is a plum role for the actor, who leaves behind his simpleton schtick to focus in on the fastidous and nervous nature of the long-in-the-tooth business manager. Stiller remains cautiously serious and pragmatic, walking that kind of comedy tightrope he specialized in films like Permanent Midnight and Zero Effect. Then, there’s Eddie Murphy, who starts out doing what we expect, but keeps doing it, with great relish. He hasn’t been this energetic or on-point since 1999’s Bowfinger, and it’s clear that a long time in the family friendly ghetto has made him hungry for big laughs.
Matthew Broderick looks haggard and wistful as Mr. Fitzhugh, a destitute stockbrocker recently evicted from the Tower, and this performance feels like a book-end to Ferris Bueller. Fitzhugh’s busted adult life is exactly the nightmare Bueller’s high school rebellion hoped to stave off, and there’s a bit involving the Ferrari that’s as harrowing as the fate of that other classic car in the Hughes film. Surprisingly, though, none of the three overwhelm the film or steal the show by themselves. This is a team effort all the way.
Alda is doing his best ruthless old man schtick, Judd Hirsch plays a slightly shrewder version of himself, and Tea Leoni as FBI Agent Claire Denham, has an absolutely lovely drunken swagger paired with a ditzy but hard-boiled procedural manner. Gabourey Sidibe is consistently funny and enlivening as a Jamaican maid with special knowledge of security safes. Casey Affleck is underused, but rounds out the team with a financially-minded conscience. As an eager new employee, all puppy dog smiles and greenhorn dexterity, Michael Pena—good as always– complements Murphy as a different kind of comedic force.
The result is Tower Heist always has someone of interest on screen even when the plot itself is running on fumes. All of the technical pieces are impeccable, with Dante Spinotti’s cinematography making the Tower itself a funhouse of thrills and a breeding ground for class warfare, while Mark Russell’s special effects work seamlessly engineers some tension in the last third. What you see is what you get, and all of it is harmless holiday fun. Tower Heist may not make off with the big payday, but it gets enough of the pie to satisfy. This is a pleasure you needn’t feel guilty about afterwards.