Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Review: "Tower Heist"

The tower in “Tower Heist” is, literally, The Tower, a Trump Towers-esque palatial home to the Manhattan super-rich elite who live there and the small army of working-class stiffs who keep their pillows fluffed and the old ladies’ frou-frou dogs walked. The bad guy is a Bernie Madoff-style oligarch who gleefully steals from the rich and the not-so-rich alike, pocketing it all and depending on his money and connections to protect him from the Defarges of the world.

The heist part takes up the second half of the movie, as Ben Stiller leads a team of amateur thieves – and one professional, played by Eddie Murphy – into The Tower penthouse to reclaim their stolen pension money. It’s all about the righteous 99 percent thwarting the evil 1 percent.

It’s like Occupy Wall Street, rewritten as a goofy caper comedy.

I did not buy any of the characters in the movie as real people, and the mechanics of the actual heist doesn’t so much strain credulity as smash it into little pieces and stomp on it. At one point the film asks us to believe that hundreds of thousands of people attending the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade could be looking up into the air at all the floats, and not one of them notices something astonishing taking place at the top of The Tower.

Still, once the actual heist gets going, the movie revs up a decent amount of momentum and finds some sustainable laughs. It’s not quite enough to recommend it, but I’ll admit “Tower Heist” is a lot better than my exceedingly low expectations.

The first thing any potential ticket-buyer needs is to be disabused of the notion that this is a Stiller/Murphy buddy picture. Murphy plays Slide, who remains a fringe character until the 45-minute mark. He’s just some local loudmouth ex-con who shouts at neighbor Josh Kovacs (Stiller) whenever he walks by.

Later, after Josh is canned as the general manager of The Tower for standing up to top resident Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), he invites Slide to join his crew of bumbling burglars. He reminds Slide they used to be nursery-school classmates, which Josh seems to think means they have a relationship, despite having no true interaction for 40 years.

The lack of any real Murphy/Stiller pairing is the biggest disappointment about “Tower Heist.” Both actors have been stuck in a rut of middlebrow comedies lately, so the idea of a couple of aging but still potent funnymen tag-teaming has a great deal of appeal.

Alas, they’re reduced to a few lame, sniping exchanges: “That’s it! I don’t want to talk to you for the rest of the robbery!”

Director Brett Ratner and screenwriters Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson never really kick the action out of tame screwball comedy territory, despite the daring Occupy overtones.

It’s too bad, considering the killer cast they assembled: in addition to Stiller, Murphy and Alda, there’s Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick, Judd Hirsch, Michael Peña, Téa Leoni and Gabourey Sidibe. That’s five Academy Award nominees by my count – quite a lot of firepower considering the low-wattage material.

Affleck plays Josh’s dim brother-in-law; Peña is Dev’Reaux, the brash new elevator man; Sidibe is Odessa, a Jamaican maid with an outsize personality; Hirsch plays the unctuous Tower boss; and Leoni is the hard-wired FBI agent gunning for Shaw.

I particularly liked Broderick as Fitzhugh, a former Wall Street whiz turned unemployed evictee, who’s got an air of bottled-up middle-aged desperation just waiting to blow. Broderick has gray hair now, a couple of chins and a mid-life spread, but his boyish face still holds a hint of puckish Bueller charm.

Though held back by its sophomoric, self-imposed limitations, “Tower Heist” rises higher than it has any right to.

2.5 stars out of four

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