Wednesday, November 23, 2011


The Ben Stiller & Eddie Murphy thriller “Tower Heist” (**1/2 out of ****) amounts to an entertaining but harebrained morality play about a gang of amateur thieves. Mind you, “Rush Hour” director Brett Ratner’s ninth film is a splendid example of contemporary class rivalry; responsible working class city dwellers tangle with a ruthless irresponsible millionaire who uses the system to shield himself. This shallow often silly snapshot of our times makes it plain that the have-nots want everything that they can haul off from the haves. Although Ratner and “Ocean’s Eleven” scenarist Ted Griffin & “Rush Hour 2” scribe Jeff Nathanson have contrived an innocuous, occasionally suspenseful caper with a few surprises, the overall result remains is bland and colorless. Sometimes, the filmmakers contradict themselves with psychic FBI agents who are easily fooled by the most obvious prank. Happily, despite its clumsy narrative lurches, “Tower Heist” doesn’t wear out its welcome. Ratner and company have done a good job of establishing the characters and setting up the heist. At one point, Casey Affleck concisely summarizes the predicament that they find themselves in and the gauntlet of obstacles that they must negotiate. Stealing what they wind up stealing turns out to be no picnic for our intrepid heroes. In some ways, “Tower Heist” is reminiscent of last summer’s hit comedy “Horrible Bosses” where amateur murderers sought advice from a professional hit man. The heist that our heroes plan during the Thanksgiving Day Parade under everybody’s noses recalls a similarly audacious crime committed in New York City during Labor Day in director Sidney Lumet’s “The Anderson Tapes” (1971) with Sean Connery. Meantime, the production values of “Tower Heist,” itself budgeted at a hefty $75 million, are impeccable. “Heat” lenser Dante Spinotti’s dazzling cinematography makes Ratner’s Manhattan based melodrama a feast for the eyes. The opening aerial shot atop a skyscraper looking down at Benjamin Franklin’s face on a $100 dollar bill at the bottom of a huge swimming pool is something to remember! Incidentally, the actual edifice itself is The Trump International Hotel & Tower overlooking Central Park.

Hardworking Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller of “Meet the Parents”) serves as the general manager of the Tower where he reigns as the top gofer who ensures that all his residents enjoy the best of everything. The owner of the Tower, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda of TV’s “M.A.S.H.”) , is an investment mogul who attended the same public school that Josh attended in Astoria. Josh and Shaw play chess on a regular basis with Shaw teaching him about the minutiae of the game. During the opening moments, Ratner provides us with a tour of the Tower and some of its notable workers and residents. We meet Josh as well as the adored doorman Lester (Stephen Henderson of “Everyday People”), the harried concierge Charlie (Casey Affleck of “Drowning Mona”), Josh’s immediate superior Mr. Simon (Judd Hirsh of “Independence Day”), new elevator operator Enrique (Michael Peña of “Shooter”) and a destitute stockholder, Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”), who Josh must evict. Aside from Mr. Fitzhugh, Josh keeps everything under control, until he learns the Feds have charged his old friend Shaw with securities fraud. Poor Lester tries to throw himself under a subway train because he has lost everything. An angry Josh storms into Shaw’s penthouse apartment and smashes Shaw’s most prized possession, a red Ferrari that Steve McQueen once drove. Later, Josh meets FBI Special Agent Claire Denham (Téa Leoni of “Bad Boys”) in a bar. She mentions that bigwigs like Shaw have a contingency safety net of millions to fall back on in case of a contingency. Josh assembles a motley crew of disgruntled employees who Shaw took to the cleaners, and they decide to ransack Shaw’s apartment for the loot. Josh enlists the aid of a former school mate, Slide (Eddie Murphy of “48 Hrs”), who knows something about committing crime. Predictably, nothing goes as planned, and our heroes find themselves in a real quandary when they discover where Shaw has stashed his money.

“Tower Heist” benefits from Alan Alda’s stellar performance as a slippery Bernie Madoff-style Wall Street villain. He steals a fortune from his gullible clients who have no clue that they’ve been defrauded. The supporting cast, including Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck, Stephen Henderson, Judd Hirsh, Gabourey Sidibe, Téa Leoni, and Michael Peña, has flawless timing. Michael Peña is particularly funny. The flaw in the ointment of “Tower Heist” is the incompatible casting of Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy. These two are accomplished comedians but their comedic styles and rhythms clash. Indeed, Stiller makes a sympathetic protagonist who commits an unfortunate mistake which not only costs his employees but also himself their life savings. Essentially, Stiller is playing a variation of his “A Night in the Museum” hero. Meanwhile, a hammy Murphy chews the scenery. The former “Saturday Night Live” comic emphasizes caricature over character in a role that Martin Lawrence could easily have pulled off without the histrionic antics. Murphy acts like he is in a “Norbit” spin-off, while everybody else plays it straight and narrow. The best comics behave as if they don’t know that they are being hilarious. Inexplicably, the producers delay the integration of Murphy into the action for about 40 minutes. Meantime, “Tower Heist” suffers from a bad ending that punishes our hero, apparently for his good intentions. The villain’s utter treachery, however, sanctions the efforts of our woebegone heroes to recover their stolen money. Shrewdly, the filmmakers have confined the larceny strictly to the characters who the villain has duped. No innocent bystanders are caught up in the calamity, and nothing in the PG-13 rated “Tower Heist” comes off as offensive. As polished as “Tower Heist” appears, the plot stumbles through its paces after everything has been carefully set up during the opening forty-five minutes. Nothing about "Tower Heist" qualifies it as a towering heist caper.

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