Forty-five minutes or so into Tower Heist, the question arises: Is this movie with the purely generic title (was Stealing Money taken?) truly good, or simply less bad than most of what director Brett Ratner has done previously?
The improbable answer is A. For what it is—recessionary wish-fulfillment escapism, with a lot of highly skilled familiar faces in its amply qualified cast—it’s fun.
The humor’s not subtle; a lot of its misogynous and fairly coarse. But the script by Ted Griffin (Ocean’s Eleven) and Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can) doesn’t make the usual action-comedy mistake of piling on the action at the expense of the comedy.
Recently tapped as producer of the Academy Awards telecast, to be hosted by Tower Heist co-star Eddie Murphy, Ratner made his pile on the Rush Hour franchise and by directing the third (and drecky) X-Men film. With Tower Heist he takes his cue from the atmosphere and vibe of various, beloved 1970s heist pictures, among them the original The Taking of Pelham 123. Certainly Ratner’s composer, Christophe Becke, has studied that film’s David Shire score: The funky bass lines and trumpet blasts here keep announcing big, bad doings in Manhattan.
Played by the Trump Tower just off Columbus Circle across from Central Park, the luxe high-rise of Tower Heist is home to a Wall Street tycoon (Alan Alda) whose ethics recall Bernie Madoff’s. He’s entrusted by building manager Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) to handle the employees’ pensions. Poof: Pensions, be gone. Political connections favor the tycoon getting away with his $2 billion crime spree, a portion of which represents the staff’s life savings. It’s up to Kovacs, with the aid of semi-pro burglar and fellow Queen’s resident Slide (Murphy), to locate and swipe a missing $20 million hidden somewhere in the tycoon’s penthouse, the centerpiece of which is a beautifully maintained classic Ferrari once owned by Steve McQueen.
The promotional imagery for Tower Heist does not hide the sequences involving the Ferrari dangling from a cable outside the building, while down below the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade proceeds along Central Park West. Compared with the outsized chaos of the Rush Hour sequels, though, Ratner’s latest has a pleasing sense of scale. The film stars big-name actors such as Matthew Broderick (as a sad-sack Wall Street victim), Michael Peña (as a newly hired bellhop), Casey Affleck (whose droll line readings as the concierge are consistently surprising) and Gabourey Precious Sidibe (as a safe-cracking maid).
Producer and co-star Murphy aren’t slumming here, exactly, but it is too bad the superstar who ruled the world with such savvy commercial entertainments as the first Beverly Hills Cop and the first 48 HRS. doesn’t get a little more elbow room. Likewise, the splendid Téa Leoni, in the role of an FBI agent, is allowed just enough screen time to remind you she’s not getting the screen time she deserves. Murphy’s key early byplay with Stiller—when the building manager explains the heist plan—ends with a simple, quick, “Let’s go get something to eat!” Note: That’s not a funny line. But Murphy’s delivery is hugely so. The sleek and efficient Tower Heist was made for one reason only: It’s all about the Benjamins. No doubt producer Murphy will arrange for co-star Murphy to have more to do in Tower Heist 2.