REVIEW: Big, Clumsy Tower Heist Still Hits Moments of Comic Grace
Brett Ratner has long been the whipping boy for everything that's wrong with big, dumb Hollywood entertainments. There's just one problem: He's actually good at making dumb stuff, and now that Hollywood entertainments have gotten even bigger without showing any signs of getting smarter, with a Ratner movie, at least you can be confident you're in the hands of a master.
Tower Heist is more of the same, a comedy that allows its ensemble of actors some interpersonal latitude with the gags -- the movie's best scenes are one-on-one exchanges -- but then clamps down on any potential breeziness by forcing a bigger, badder, not-necessarily-better finale. After watching Gabourey Sidibe flirt coquettishly with Eddie Murphy -- and getting one hell of a rise out of him -- do we really need to see a rare, zillion-dollar sportscar being lowered down the side of a skyscraper?
Ratner and writers Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson (working from a story by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage and Griffin) apparently think we do, and by the time those shenanigans kick in, Tower Heist has already gotten a lot of the fun out of the way. But much of the picture is fun, and even though it's rather big and clumsy in its attempts to kick the collective asses of fat-cat finance guys -- and there's something nakedly opportunistic about its efforts to grab a piece of the Zeitgeist pie -- it's harmless and silly at worst.
Ben Stiller stars as Josh Kovacs, the manager of a Manhattan luxury high-rise that looks a lot like Trump Tower because it is Trump Tower, though it's never mentioned by name. In addition to keeping the building's staff on its toes, Josh serves as toady to the building's richest resident, big-time financier Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda, who brings that great trademark benign sliminess to the role). Despite the fact that he owns a rooftop pool that's all about the Benjamin -- its bottom is lined with a jumbo replica of that most coveted denomination -- Shaw works hard at pretending he's just an average guy. He and Josh even attended the same Queens high school, years apart; the difference is, Josh still lives in Queens.
Then FBI Special Agent Claire Denham (Téa Leoni) shows up to arrest Shaw for securities fraud. Unfortunately, it turns out that Josh has entrusted Shaw to invest the retirement savings of all the building's employees. That means everyone from the saucy housekeeper Odessa (Sidibe) to the seemingly half-awake concierge (Casey Affleck), whose wife is eight months pregnant, has fallen victim to Shaw's schemes. Feeling angry and betrayed, Josh enlists a bumbling troupe -- including a recently hired elevator operator played by Michael Peña and a former building resident (Matthew Broderick) who's fallen on hard times himself -- to stage an internal heist that will recoup the money Shaw has stolen from them. But being a nerdy white guy from Queens, he needs the help of one of his neighbors, career hood Slide (Eddie Murphy), to do it.
Tower Heist is overstuffed with actors, and yet Ratner manages to give each of them one or two (or more) good moments. Stiller is, for a change, remarkably unloathsome here, partly because the always-wonderful Leoni -- one of the great modern screwball actresses, if filmmakers only knew what to do with screwball actresses these days -- somehow drains some of the poison off him. Leoni can be tough and loopy at the same time, an extraordinary combination. When she discovers that Shaw has a pedigreed Ferrari stashed in his living room, she shoots him with a glorious ray from her ice gun: "You have Steve McQueen's car parked in your living room? And here I thought you were an asshole."
Broderick makes a great deadpan sadsack -- he actually makes you feel sorry for deposed Wall Street hotshots. Murphy is Murphy: He's not branching into any new territory, but he sure knows his way around a wisecrack (and I continue to be charmed by his resolutely unfixed front teeth). But Sidibe -- whose character isn't just a domestic but also an ace safecracker -- is the greatest surprise here: She's breezy and casual and winning, particularly in the moment where she shocks Murphy's Slide with her seductive potty-mouth. The look on Murphy's face -- a slow-burning WTF -- is lovely in its own right, but its Sidibe's flirty demureness that steals the moment. Ratner loves to go for the big, excessive finish, and Tower Heist is most fatiguing in the last stretch. But his movie is also dotted, here and there, with comic gracefulness. You'd never accuse Ratner of having a light touch, but every once in a while, he lets a breeze blow through even this most gargantuan of skyscrapers.