I have to admit that as I settled in to watch Brett Ratner’s “Tower Heist”, I had tempered my expectations way down. Brett Ratner has been a scattershot filmmaker at best, with an off-putting ego to match. The last two holiday seasons, Ben Stiller has sleepwalked his way through a third “Fockers” film in December 2010, and winced noticeably through the wheezing ca$h cow of a sequel in 2009’s “Night At The Museum: Battle Of The Smithsonian”. Eddie Murphy has not been on screen in more than two years (not counting his vocalizing of Donkey from the “Shrek” franchise), and his track record over the last several years, sans his 2006 Oscar-nominated turn in “Dreamgirls”, has been disposable and unremarkable. And there is just not much of a career anymore for Matthew Broderick, who has struggled to sustain relevancy, and stand apart for being anything more than Sarah Jessica Parker’s husband. “Tower Heist” presents with all the makings of a big budget catastrophe, but after a few minutes, you notice Ben Stiller has an extra zip in his step, the timing amongst the actors feels crisp and on point, and Ratner’s introductions to Alan Alda, Casey Affleck, and Michael Pena are well orchestrated and engaging.
In a massive apartment high rise in Manhattan known as “The Tower” (the film was partly shot in Donald Trump’s legendary Trump Tower), Stiller plays Josh Kovacs, the building manager who works virtually 24/7 every day of the week. He reports to his supervisor, Mr. Simon (Judd Hirsch), and has the respect of the large staff he oversees. Josh knows each and every tenant by name, knows their schedules, living habits, likes and dislikes, and prevails upon everyone the important of knowing the tenants better than they know themselves. Truth be told, everyone bends and sways to appease The Tower’s prized tenant, Wall Street billionaire Walter Shaw (Alda), and what Walter wants…Walter gets. Walter meets a probationary hire, Enrique (Pena) and hits it off so well with the new bellhop, he demands that Josh hire him on the spot. Suffice it to say, Enrique is brought on board full time.
As Josh navigates through his staff and routinely covers for his brother-in-law Charlie’s poor performance (Casey Affleck), one afternoon something looks strange on the security camera. Josh is reminded of a recent high-rise robbery and when he sees some shady sunglasses-wearing business types pull up outside The Tower and cautiously move towards entering the building, Josh orders the building to go to lockdown. To his horror, Josh and head security guard, Manuel (Juan Carlos Hernandez) see Walter being ushered into the back of a windowless van. Without thinking, Josh sets out to chase down the getaway vehicle and eventually his efforts succeed in stifling the abduction. However, also on site are FBI agents, led by Special Agent Claire Denham (Tea Leoni), who informs Josh that what we witnessed was not an abduction or kidnapping, but an attempted getaway. Shaw has been indicted and is under arrest for defrauding investors out of billions of dollars and sadly, also comprising that group of those Shaw allegedly swindled…virtually the entire staff of The Tower, victimized from a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme.
With Walter placed on house arrest, Josh attempts to give Shaw a piece of his mind, on behalf of everyone working at The Tower, but his lack of judgment leads to Mr. Simon firing Josh and a handful of other employees. As Josh becomes more and more friendly with Special Agent Denham and learns some confidential details, Josh internalizes the information and concocts a scheme of epic proportion. Denham states that $20 million has gone missing and unaccounted for while investigating Shaw, so Josh curries in Charlie, Enrique and a foreclosed-upon tenant and former Wall Street broker, Fitzhugh (Broderick), to find and rob Shaw of this reported $20 million. The final cog in the wheel is the perennial arrestee Josh sees on his way to work each day, Slide (Eddie Murphy), who Josh is convinced will serve as the perfect final ingredient to make their ambitions become reality.
I suppose one could draw comparisons to the recent George Clooney-led “Ocean’s” films, but “Tower Heist” is not as professional, sleek, or high brow. Brett Ratner infuses his film with an urgency though and wastes little time in setting up where he wants the story to go. While the screenplay by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson has its moments, the confidence Ratner places in his talented ensemble makes the film reach an unexpected tone of hilarity and energy. Stiller is good, Alan Alda is clearly having a great deal of fun, while Affleck, Broderick, and Pena slot in well with their supporting turns. Tea Leoni shines in a couple of hilarious moments with Stiller, but Ratner’s biggest success comes in rekindling the fires within Eddie Murphy.
As “Slide”, Murphy is as loose and free-spirited as this PG-13 rating will allow him to be. A career criminal who may or may not be as diabolical as Josh thinks he is, Slide dominates the motley crew of wannabe criminals, comically challenging Josh’s authority. When Murphy is on screen, the film is simply better and allows you to overlook the increasingly preposterous story unfolding before you. I have no idea if this is the comeback Eddie Murphy fans have been clamoring for all these years, but if Murphy seeks to be relevant again and a significant box office draw, this helps and it helps a lot.
Naturally, the world’s events and the ongoing Occupy movements across the United States and the World make “Tower Heist” seem perfectly timed and positioned as if it needs to make some statement on the whole 99%/1% financial inequality debate happening everyday in our newspapers and in our 24-hour cable news cycle. Don’t kid yourself, this is pure coincidence of timing. While certainly playing off the anger and resentment of the 2008 financial crisis, “Tower Heist” weakens greatly with any attempts at being conscientious with the world it inhabits. Chances are you’ll be laughing and smiling too much to frankly care how insightful the film really is or is not.
Like Ratner’s other forays into big-budget action movies, logic and sense of plot are of little to no importance. Once Josh is replaced as building manager by his brother-in-law, Stiller and Leoni’s characters find a spark, and one drawn out and elongated action sequence involving a prized possession of Walter Shaw’s sends the movie so wildly off the rails that you simply sit back and marvel at the immature audacity of it all. Even in its most ludicrous of moments, “Tower Heist” entertains and almost revels in its ridiculousness. In the last half of the film, and pretty much each time Eddie Murphy appeared on screen, I had a smile on my face and was laughing frequently. And believe me, I am as surprised to share that as you might be in reading that.
This is not the year’s best comedy and it is nowhere close to the year’s best film. And plotting it out or sharing the details out loud only adds to the inanity of how all of this transpires. Infused with Eddie Murphy’s most engaging and entertaining live action performance in what feels like an eternity, and with everyone buying into their characters and their place amongst the ensemble, “Tower Heist” succeeds largely because everyone seemingly locked arms and just decided to go for it. This is all surface level, extra-butter-on-the-popcorn-style entertainment, but Ratner mostly controls past indulgences and lets his actors lead the way.