Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick, Tea Leoni, Gabourey Sidibe
US theatrical: 4 Nov 2011 (General release)
UK theatrical: 2 Nov 2011 (General release)
Eddie Murphy is back. Maybe. If you’ve watched TV or glanced at the internet in the past couple of weeks, you’re aware that he’s hosting the next Oscars and also that he’s in a movie called Tower Heist. He might even be going back to SNL. His self-loving multiple reintroductions suggest that Murphy is reinvigorated, ready to put the disasters Norbit and Meet Dave and maybe even that easy-paycheck Donkey behind him. You might even think that, given Tower Heist‘s much-trumpeted condemnation of Wall Street greed and Bernie Madoff, that Murphy is returning to what he used to do pretty well, pointedly political comedy.
Alas, Tower Heist is not what you might hope. Begin with the idea that Murphy (one of the film’s three producers) plays a thief named Slide, a character you’ve seen many, many times before. Slide’s actually a supporting cast member here, introduced as a big-mouthed, big-jewelry-wearing bully who happens to live near Josh (Ben Stiller). The general manager at the Tower hotel (exteriors shot at Trump Tower at Columbus Circle), Josh is affable and apparently complacent in his worker bee role, daily playing online chess with one of the Tower’s wealthiest inhabitants, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), for whom Josh also provides useful tips and gossip.
The film establishes Josh’s relationship with Shaw before it sends him walking past Slide on the sidewalk (to set their personalities, Slide harasses him and Josh smiles) to the Tower. Here you see how good Josh is at his job, anticipating residents’ whims and making his staff and his boss (Judd Hirsch) believe he’s got it all under control. To maintain this fiction, Josh regularly covers up for the usually late concierge Charlie (Casey Affleck), Miss Iovenko (Nina Arianda), who studies for her bar exam during work hours, the tenant Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), who’s about to be evicted, and the new elevator operator Enrique (Michael Peña), who’s a little too slick and ambitious for Josh’s personal taste.
The film doesn’t press the point, but in his smoothing over, Josh is not unlike Shaw, who—we come to learn shortly—has been smoothing over his high stakes bad bets by pretending to invest still more money for still more clients. (Granted, Josh’s smoothing over does not benefit him directly, as does Shaw’s.) When Shaw’s crimes are revealed, by FBI agent Claire Denham (Téa Leoni), Josh is horrified doubly—not only is his seeming model of intelligence and success a fraud, but he’s also lost all the staff’s pensions in his scheme. Those “losing everything” include the lovable doorman Lester (Stephen McKinley Henderson), as well as the righteously angry maid Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe), both powerless to respond, and one so distraught that Josh is moved to take direct action. When he takes out his rage by bashing Shaw’s vintage Ferrari in front of him, Josh is fired, along with Charlie and Enrique.
The heist of the film’s title is thus premised on a desire for revenge that seems timely. Because Josh and his crew have no experience stealing, they seek help and instruction from the only thief he knows, Slide. Unsurprisingly, Josh knows Slide less well than he guess, based on their sidewalk encounters, and the team’s education involves a pile-on of Murphy’s signature antics, denigrating white guys’ ignorance, seeming gayness, and general softness. Josh and company absorb their abuse until they don’t, and then Slide must also learn some lessons in multi-culti camaraderie.
The standard structure in Tower Heist is offset by a breezy pace, a few quick movie-heisty turns in the final act, and a couple of clever visual details: among the many bits of information that Josh has amassed over years at the Tower is this: during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, a certain set of workers will exit the hotel at a precise moment to see the Snoopy balloon as it passes. The brief scene that shows the workers’ exit and the thieves’ simultaneous entrance through the otherwise wholly secure basement door shows what good can be gleaned from slick editing and smart frame compositions. As splashy and loud and gimmicky, as it may be, Tower Heist is professional movie made by people who know what they’re doing.
Apart from such production sheen, though, the movie’s more than a little tedious. Shaw’s not only a thief, he’s an exceptionally evil and unregretful thief. That’s not to say that a Brett Ratner action-comedy needs nuanced characterization. It is to say that Shaw’s a wholly easy target, made even more so by his meanness and contempt, for his victims, in particular Josh. Per generic formula, their increasingly visible personal enmity makes everything Josh does in retaliation okay and even emotionally fulfilling. You’re urged to cheer these outlaws, because they’re getting back what should be theirs, fantastically effective 99%-ers. (That the FBI agent sees her own interest aligned with theirs is icing on some kind of cake.) Invited to be part of the team—even after he contemns and betrays them—Slide is never pointedly political. He’s only predictable.