In Tower Heist, director Brett Ratner pulls off one of the most miraculous things I’ve seen at the movies in years –he’s somehow managed to make Eddie Murphy funny again! Yes, I’m being serious! Remember the Eddie Murphy of the 80s? The Eddie Murphy of Raw, 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop and Coming to America – he’s finally back!
As Slide, a doofus of a career criminal whose flamboyant behavior is only matched by his loud mouth, Murphy gives his most lived-in comedic performance since Bowfinger. It’s as if he’s finally woken up and realized that audiences are sick of the fat suits & kiddie pictures, and it’s the old Eddie who they want. If his work here is any indication of what he and Ratner have up their sleeves for next February’s Academy Awards, then we may actually have an evening worth staying awake for. Now if only Ratner had dedicated the same amount of time on the rest of Tower Heist, he might have had a very good film to complement Murphy.
As it stands, Tower Heist is merely a competent effort that stays afloat solely on the strength of its ensemble cast that also includes Ben Stiller, Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck, Michael Pena, Tea Leoni, Gabourey Sidibe and Alan Alda. Like last weekend’s science fiction thriller In Time, which scratched the idea of the disparity between the 1% and the 99%, Ratner’s film also plays a tune ripped from the headlines – except this time, it’s about crow-eating Wall Street tycoons who get away scot-free.
Stiller plays Josh Kovacs, a beloved building manager of a posh Manhattan residence tower that’s homes some of the city’s richest residents. Chief among these is Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a Wall Street investment tycoon who owns the tower’s swank penthouse and who Josh entrusts the employee’s pension fund to. So when Shaw is arrested in dramatic fashion by F.B.I. agent Claire Denham (Tea Leoni) and her team on charges of embezzling billions including all of the tower employee’s funds, they are understandably devastated. Feeling personally responsible for wrecking the retirement funds of most of his workforce, including family members and seniors, Josh decides to take things into his own hands and do the only thing he can think of to get even with the slimy Shaw: Steal back from him.
Josh receives help from Charlie Gibbs (Casey Affleck), his under-achieving brother-in-law and the tower’s concierge, Enrique Dev’reaux (Michael Pena), a smooth-talking, dim-witted bellhop, and Matthew Broderick as Mr. Fitzhugh, a wimpy now bankrupt stockbroker who’s in it solely for the cash. But to pull off their crime, these amateurs need the help of a real criminal mastermind and that’s where Murphy’s jail-prone Slide comes in.
Before I get any further, I’ll preface that this review isn’t a pan. I wasn’t bored or rolling my eyes while watching Tower Heist. But neither was I transfixed. To its credit, this is a skillfully produced, admirably-shot picture (courtesy of cinematographer Dante Spinotti) that has its share of enjoyable moments (mostly involving Murphy and the others ad-libbing about lesbian sex, seizure boys and getting shot in the face, and a great scene with the guys stealing stuff from a mall). It’s even got a salacious score by Christophe Beck that evokes stuff like Henry Mancini’s classic tunes for The Pink Panther series.
Where Tower Heist primarily lags is the characters and the actual caper itself. Although Stiller, Murphy, Affleck and Broderick are given some background to work with, there isn’t enough in the script by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson that makes me sympathize with these guys. Sure, they’ve been robbed but a lot of people lose their life savings every day. It’s a horrible situation that I wish nobody has to ever endure but you’ve got to give me more than that to create a vesting interest in these characters. Ergo, there isn’t a single moment in the film that got me thinking – wow, how are they going to pull this off? The caper itself is extremely silly, plot-hole ridden, and uneven to the point that I left feeling like a good chunk of the film was left on the cutting board, and as if Ratner was more interested in schmoozing with his stars than focusing on the plot.
That the film remains watchable despite these flaws is kudos to the ensemble cast. Murphy, as I mentioned earlier, steals the show as the career-criminal. If only he were in more of the film. The underrated Affleck is also convincing as the family man conflicted between the loyalty to his job and his brother-in-law; Sidibe gets some fantastic moments as a sassy Jamaican housekeeper with a talent for unlocking safes whereas Pena makes the best of a few gems as the eager-to-please Enrique. Broderick however is once again saddled with playing the mild-mannered oaf – which he does eloquently – I wish he didn’t do it so damn often. Stiller, on the other hand, plays up his shtick as the annoyed straight man to the T but it’s the great Alda who scores high marks as the sleazy, conniving Shaw. Think of Shaw as a distant cousin of his Senator Brewster in Scorsese’s The Aviator.
There’s not a lot about Tower Heist that’s memorable or interesting; The plot isn’t effectively executed nor are the characters well-defined but it did its job of keeping me entertained through its running time principally on the strength of its ensemble cast of talented comics led by Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy – the latter who showcases his best work in years!