Film Review – Tower Heist
Tower Heist (2011), the latest action/comedy film directed by the infamous Brett Ratner, aims to be nothing more than a straight down the line form of popcorn entertainment. On that basic level alone, the film accomplishes what it sets out to do. There isn’t much that is quite remarkable going on here; everyone that is involved has been in far better work. With that said, though, there are certainly a fair amount of laughs to be had, and although the film does have a number of problems, I found myself looking past those issues and concentrating on the elements that did work. It’s a surprisingly fun time; I had walked in to the theater expecting a bad movie, but to my amazement walked out having seen a fairly enjoyable one. Who would’ve thought?
The first thing to notice with the film is the odd choices in casting. Looking down the list, there are names that I would never have expected to see mixed together. You have Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick, Téa Leoni, Michael Peña, and Gabourey Sidibe. All of these actors are fairly good, a few of them even earning some critical acclaim for other roles. So to think that they would all be associated together in a comedy heist film, I was at first a little puzzled. But once seeing the movie, it’s almost as if the casting was spot on, like I couldn’t see any other people who would have worked, other than them. There’s the straight man in Stiller; the extrovert in Murphy; the lovable silliness in Affleck, Peña and Sidibe; the awkward geekiness in Broderick; the wormy subtlety in Alda; and the down to earth believability in Leoni, all working together naturally. Each steps into the spotlight and performs spot on when their number is called, while at the same time stepping back to allow the others to take their turn. It’s quite interesting to see everyone’s chemistry working so well together.
The story of the film is so of the time that it seems as though it could have been ripped right out of today’s headlines. Billionaire businessman Arthur Shaw (Alda) is the Bernie Madoff character here. He has been arrested due to allegations of investment fraud; the federal government has seized all of his wealth, and has put him on twenty-four-hour house arrest in his swanky apartment in one of the tall skyscrapers in New York City. The sad part about Shaw and his scam is that his lost investments also included the retirement funds of dozens of the building’s workers, those who cook and clean and cater to Shaw and the other billionaires who live there. Amongst those is the manager, Josh Kovacs (Stiller). Kovacs has been a loyal employee to the building and to Shaw for years; he knows everything there is know about him, the other residents, and the employees. When Shaw is revealed to be a liar and a fraud, Kovacs takes this betrayal to his and the workers’ loyalty personally. There’s an unexpectedly moving scene between Kovacs and the building’s doorman Lester (Stephen Henderson). After learning that Lester can no longer retire and take his dream vacation around the world due to all of his savings being lost, Kovacs takes it upon himself to right the wrongs that Shaw has done.
What exactly does that entail? Well, that includes conspiring with the concierge Charlie (Affleck), the newly-employed-then-unemployed worker Enrique (Peña), former investment advisor Mr. Fitzhugh (Broderick), the maid Odessa (Sidibe), and a lifetime criminal/thief known only as Slide (Murphy), on a daring break in and heist of hidden funds that Shaw has kept in his apartment. Kovacs knows that Shaw has extra money placed somewhere in case he were to lose everything, and if those funds were split between all of the employees, it would make for the perfect revenge for the hardship Shaw has placed on them all. What follows is an all-out exercise in incompetence, as none of the members of the team has the slightest clue in how to stage a heist. Charlie is an expecting father who can’t afford to go to jail; the most technical know how Enrique has ever had was an online degree from a community college; Kovacs maps out the layout of Shaw’s apartment using Legos; even Slide isn’t the hardcore criminal he appears to be. One of the elements that works the best in the film is watching the group bumble their way in planning and executing their mission, all while avoiding being caught by the FBI, led by Special Agent Claire Denham (Leoni).
This is a funny movie, much funnier than I had expected it to be. Each character works with and reacts to the others in a very good way. In fact, the best parts of the film did not involve the heist at all, but rather the small scenes of dialogue where each of the characters played off one another. There were times where the conversations between everyone felt so natural that a punch line could have come from left field and it still would have worked within the context of the scene. Tthe characters are distinctly unique from each other; none have the same kind of mannerisms or sense of delivery, which worked perfectly in regard to the film’s awkward chemistry. This makes up for the total lack of sensibility when dealing with the heist itself. The execution of the plan is so utterly preposterous, from the gaping holes in logic to the twists and double crosses that can be seen from a mile away, that I was relieved that the comedy somehow makes up for it.
Let’s talk about Eddie Murphy for a little bit. Here is a man who, during the eighties and the early part of the nineties, was on top of the comedy world. His work on Saturday Night Live, his stand-up performances, and his early movie roles in films such as Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Coming to America (1988) made him one of the biggest stars in the world. However, the last two decades has seen a significant drop in quality from this actor. It seemed that he had become fine in reducing his output far below his talent. Sure, there were a few exceptions. I actually really liked him in Bowfinger (1999), and you can’t deny him of his Oscar-nominated performance in Dreamgirls (2006), but that’s only two films during a time where his career had settled for mostly stupid comedies or uninspired family films. With his performance as Slide in this movie, Murphy has tapped a little bit of the person he once was. Here he is energetic, crisp, quick with a one-liner, and unafraid of saying something that might offend someone else, and I welcomed that with opened arms. It’s a shame that Slide is surprisingly not in the movie as much as I had expected, because Murphy supplies much of the film’s amusement (when he’s onscreen). I’ve heard that Murphy wants to move away from family films, and with this role he has taken one step in the right direction.
So is Tower Heist a film that I recommend or not? Let me say it like this: I think anyone who’s interested enough in paying to see this movie in a theater will get their money’s worth. Audiences that like this sort of film will enjoy it despite any criticisms, and those who wouldn’t like it won’t be going anyway, so it kind of works out for everyone. The film does have its fair share of issues—from the plotting, to the absurdity involving the robbery, to the glaringly obvious surprises—and on paper this film shouldn’t work. But I can’t deny my positive reaction to it. I found myself laughing a number of times and being entertained despite the noticeable weaknesses. It’s a middle-of-the-road comedy in which the good outweighs the bad.
Final Grade: B-