The timely Tower Heist, which is twice as funny as I thought it would be but not half as funny as it could have been, is about a working class rebellion among the service employees in a luxury Manhattan high-rise. Their target in this jovial but lazy economy comedy (Can we call it an econ com? Ok, let’s call it an econ com.) is a smooth talking Bernie Madoff-like character named Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), who is under house arrest in his penthouse apartment.
The staff at The Tower has been fiercely loyal to Arthur, particularly building manager Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller), who is so devoted that he listens to cooking shows for ideas on which cheese and wine pairings Arthur should serve at dinner parties. Josh even doubts that Arthur could really be guilty of the Ponzi scheme that he has been accused of perpetrating. But everyone from Charlie the concierge (Casey Affleck) to Odessa the Jamaican maid (Gabourey Sidibe) turn on the mogul when they discover that he not only lost the staff’s entire pension fund but, what’s more, doesn’t feel any remorse. Even news that his building’s bereft elderly doorman tried to throw himself in front of a subway train doesn’t ruffle this 1 percenter’s feathers.
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Of course, Tower Heist isn’t dark enough to actually kill off the doorman. This is, after all, a film from Brett Ratner, the director behind the cheerfully mindless Rush Hour franchise. Despite its ripped from the headlines topic, Ratner and a quartet of writers keep it light. Plotting for the heist itself — which Josh dreams up after an indiscreet FBI agent (Tea Leoni) tips him off about a missing $20 million that might be in Arthur’s apartment — is entirely lackadaisical. Not even the perpetrators, including Charlie, Odessa and elevator man Enrique (Michael Pena), know what’s going on. They’re smarter than the Stooges, but not by much. Imagine the Ocean’s Eleven caper being planned by the hotel staff from Maid in Manhattan.
Stiller steers the movie like an expert concierge, making sure that everything runs smoothly without drawing much attention to himself. Instead, the best comic moments come from the outsiders that Josh invites to join his crew. Sad sack Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick) is a former 1 percenter, having worked at Merrill Lynch, and has the distinction of having been the first ever Tower resident to be foreclosed on and subsequently evicted. He’s good with numbers, but better at deadpan jokes. Josh also brings in Slide (Eddie Murphy), his loudmouthed neighbor from Queens, as a criminal consultant. Murphy’s is a funnier version of a similar part played by Jamie Foxx played in this summer’s Horrible Bosses. (Who says that black actors and actresses have fewer opportunities in Hollywood?) Slide talks tough — the scene where he makes the crew prove their mettle by shoplifting at the mall is fun – but doesn’t have real experience with break ins, preferring to thieve from balconies. “What do you steal, potted plants?” asks Mr. Fitzhugh, half in wonder, half in sarcasm.
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It’s hard to go completely wrong when you’ve got Broderick shuffling around in a bathrobe and Murphy scampering in black leather. They both look notably aged, Broderick in a puffy way, while Murphy seems to only be getting leaner. Yet both bring a kick to the movie. So do Alda, who expertly navigates Arthur’s turn from benevolent to nasty, and Sidibe, even though her lines are fairly deplorable. No actress of size should be required to spin a joke from the line “let’s talk about the elephant in the room” but Sidibe manages it without losing her dignity. She got noticed (and Oscar-nominated) for the uber-serious Precious but it’s clear she relishes the chance to make people laugh. There’s a little scene where Odessa flirts with Slide, and Murphy actually looks daunted by the force of her. These two deserve their own movie.
But certainly not one helmed by Ratner. He’s a grab bag director who understands how to string big elements (like actors and scenarios) together but doesn’t seem interested in the small details that make a movie gel, like timelines and continuity. Tower Heist culminates with some slapstick involving a red Ferrari dangling from The Tower. It’s a cool stunt and my stomach did a few back flips as various actors dangled off it high above the streets. But Ratner is in such a rush to score his money shot that he doesn’t bother to to justify it or for that matter, make the haphazard plot fit together. I have to give him credit though; he’s got his finger on the pulse. Though Tower Heist doesn’t reach any great heights, its very existence speaks volumes about how mainstream the class war has become.