Tower Heist: Film Review

David Lee/Universal Studios
This lively, funny caper hinged on victims getting their own back from a Madoff type should play well to a wide audience.

Brett Ratner's comic caper about coworkers who turn the tables on a Bernie Madoff type is a smoothly engineered crowd pleaser.

Tower Heist spins on a crackerjack premise that’s played for broad entertainment value, rather than real interest in the contemporary economic issues at its core. Brett Ratner’s comic caper about a bunch of co-workers who turn the tables on a Bernie Madoff type who has swindled them out of their pensions is snappy, well cast and streetwise in a well-upholstered New York sort of way, and it is peppered with smart-mouthed sass, much of it supplied by Eddie Murphy. This smoothly engineered crowd-pleaser should fulfill its function just fine through Thanksgiving and beyond.

A whole different film with the same plot and cast of characters could have been made that would have mined the raw grievances of people who have been cheated or otherwise lost their jobs or life savings in the wake of the money troubles of the past three years. It could still even have been a comedy. But Ratner and screenwriters Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson use the financial mayhem as a plot trigger for an elaborate scheme that, however far-fetched, is all but irresistible in its criminal legitimacy and its promise for just desserts.

The opening shot is a stunner, a view straight down at Ben Franklin’s $100 face gracing the bottom of the swimming pool atop the Tower, Manhattan’s most expensive residential spire (played by Trump Tower Columbus Circle, formerly the Gulf + Western Building). Out of it emerges Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), the self-satisfied Tower owner and investment king known for the handsome returns he always delivers to his clientele.

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The melting pot of supporting characters swings into view with the speed of passengers bounding off a carousel. Building GM Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller), who enjoys complicity with Shaw based on their shared Astoria working-class roots, runs the facility like a cool ship’s captain, monitoring the innumerable employees, catering to the privileged residents and keeping an eye on comings and goings via a battery of video screens. During the course of a few minutes, he’s obliged to hire enthusiastic job applicant Enrique (Michael Pena) and to try to evict once-successful stockbroker Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), whose condo is in foreclosure. Then there’s front-desk clerk Charlie (Casey Affleck), whose wife is about to give birth, and Lester (Stephen McKinley Henderson), the beloved veteran doorman who announces he’ll be hanging up his cap in a year’s time.

But his retirement is contingent on his ship coming in; Lester, like many others, has given his life savings to the venerable Shaw, who this day is nailed by the Feds, led by Special Agent Claire Denham (Tea Leoni), and charged with securities fraud. It falls to Josh to inform the staff that their pensions have been wiped out. After he, Enrique and Charlie go to Shaw’s penthouse and Josh takes a golf club to Shaw’s cherry-red Ferrari — parked where a grand piano normally might be — the three musketeers are fired.

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Heist threatens to become serious only for a minute, when Lester, despairing he has worked his whole life for nothing, appears ready to throw himself under a subway train. But that’s no fun, so instead attention turns to the FBI agent drunkenly revealing to Josh in a bar that Shaw has $20 million stashed away. Intimately acquainted as he is with the Tower, Josh thinks he knows precisely where the loot is, so after he reconvenes his trusted crew, he feels the need to recruit a real criminal, Slide (Murphy), to help pull off the job.

With Murphy’s full entrance at the 40-minute mark, the film’s energy and amusement level kick up a few notches, at least for a while. This is the rude, confrontational, wiseass Murphy audiences have nearly forgotten after all the silly kid comedies and heavy-makeup outings of recent years. Sprung from prison to teach the neophytes a thing or two about crime, Slide takes charge, in one funny scene forcing each to shoplift something to prove their own worth. But he must admit he can’t crack the relevant safe, a job that then goes to another screwed-over Tower worker, the Jamaican Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe).

During the middle stretch when Murphy rules the roost, the film is in good hands. Once the break-in is underway — during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, no less — the enjoyment slips for several reasons: Murphy becomes neutered, the comedy ebbs and the logistics of the heist become too far-fetched and laborious. Without becoming utterly serious, if the filmmakers had been able to embody in the climax the sense of outrage and injustice inherent in the film’s premise, they really would have had something. As it is, there’s inevitable satisfaction with the result, but it’s glib, more connected to genre expectations than to anything real.

But Heist, shot sharply by Dante Spinotti and goosed by a zippy score from Christophe Beck, does remind that it has been a long time — since the 1970s, really — that this sort of star-laden caper film was in fashion, the Ocean’smovies being notable exceptions. Ratner pulls it off with relish and amiable levity, even if a greater sense of BS’ing among the actors would have lifted things higher; when big girl Sidibe (Precious) begins coming on to Murphy after she joins the crew, one hopes for more of this as he’s great in comic-panic mode. Broderick has some effective low-key humorous moments, but Pena and Affleck don’t operate on the same comic plane as Stiller and Murphy, creating a minor imbalance. As the financial titan, Alda perfectly hits the desired note of brazen confidence in the man’s untouchability.

For Stiller’s part, he effectively plays the straight man, the organizer whose sense of justice and righting a huge wrong drives the operation. Just a bit more layering in the writing of his character, giving Josh a bottom, might have provided the heft to give the film weight. But a good time it is, all the same.