Tower Heist (review)

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Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy in Tower Heist

Bastille on the Hudson

For a film critic, there are few pleasures more satisfying than ripping into a bad movie. But one of those few is discovering that a film that you were expecting to hate — a movie that you had no doubts whatsoever would turn out to be utterly awful — turns out to be wonderful.

Tower Heist is one of those movies.

To say that I am not a fan of director Brett Ratner is an understatement of the highest degree. His Rush Hour movies are some of the worst examples of revolting modern minstrel shows and incoherent action. His X-Men: The Last Stand is damn near unwatchable. His movies have been the multiplex equivalent of a spoiled brat throwing a tantrum. Ratner tempts one to say nice things about Michael Bay, who at least has a discernible point of view, if a demented and reprehensible one.

I can’t say I’m a convert to Ratner, for whom the term fauxteur was coined, and rightly so. But I’m happy to admit that in this case, Ratner has made a good film. Kudos, honestly, to Ratner for stepping back and letting the smart script — instead of his cinematic spite — take center stage.

The flavor of Ted Griffin’s early work — for marvelous films such as Ocean’s Eleven and Best Laid Plans — is all over this. As are hints of his cowriter Jeff Nathanson’s Catch Me If You Can. (I’ll pretend I don’t know he is credited on Rush Hour 2 and Rush Hour 3.) Also credited are Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, who wrote the underappreciated sly college comedy Accepted, which similarly demonstrates that goofy high-concept movies don’t have to be stupid to be satisfying.

Of course Tower Heist is goofy high-concept: the title alone makes it sound like a parody of itself. When the working-class schmoes who keep a ritzy Manhattan residential building running efficiently discover they’ve been defrauded out of their pensions by one of the residents, a Wall Street sleaze they should never have trusted with their very hard-earned money, they decide to rob him of his millions as literal payback.

It’s as simple as that. Throw in Ben Stiller (Little Fockers, Megamind) and Eddie Murphy (Shrek Forever After, Imagine That), neither of whom have good track records with live-action studio comedies lately, and it sounds like a recipe for idiotic disaster.

And yet it works. I couldn’t believe it as I was watching: I found myself feeling genuine sympathy for Ben Stiller’s smoothly competent building manager, because he is not a caricature, and he’s certainly not the Ben Stiller Cartoon Punching Bag he’s taken to playing in too many movies. And his coworkers — maids and elevator operators, doormen and concierges, played in key roles by Michael Peña (The Lincoln Lawyer, Battle: Los Angeles), Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), and Casey Affleck (The Killer Inside Me, Gone Baby Gone) — are treated by the film with a frankly shocking level of respect, even when it comes to their silly quirks played for laughs.

There are some nicely sharp satirical elements of class warfare here that could not be more of-the-moment. Alan Alda’s (Nothing But the Truth, Flash of Genius) slimy hedge-fund manager, Arthur Shaw, should have known better than to piss off the people who know every intimate detail of his life (because they pay attention to his every coming and going, because they clean his apartment, because they have been dedicated to a level of service that must be aware of his every need). Except he was used to the “little people” in his life not realizing the power they could wield over him… or being too honest and upstanding to take advantage of their knowledge. Now, though: “We’ve been casing this place for over a decade,” Stiller’s Josh Kovacs notes to his coworkers once they’ve decided to pull their heist. “We just didn’t know it.”

But it’s thievery and heartlessness that make up the villainy here, not wealth. Matthew Broderick’s (The Tale of Despereaux, Bee Movie) Chase Fitzhugh is a Tower resident getting foreclosed upon — he’s been dinged, too, by the financial meltdown, if not specifically by Shaw’s crime — but he too is treated with respect and sympathy for his plight. (It hurts to lose your home even if you’re rich, or were.) In a remarkable confluence, Tower Heist mirrors, under the comedy, the anger of the Occupy movement that is spreading quickly around the globe: There is no demonization of the wealthy here, but there is rage at inequity, injustice, and the free passes given to the powerful and the connected. (In case you’re counting, this is now the second movie of the Occupy era, after In Time.)

On top of all the juicily satisfying fury, the actual heist stuff is clever and original (if completely preposterous and almost certainly physically impossible). The action is fresh and funny, and made more potent performed by nonaction heroes, just regular guys who really, really don’t want to get hurt. (And Téa Leoni’s [You Kill Me, Fun with Dick & Jane] FBI agent is a bracing change from how women are often treated by such movies: she’s a honest-to-goodness working-class New Yorker, too, and while she is an unwitting accomplice in the heist, she’s no stooge, either.) There’s the real New York vibe that can come only from shooting in New York — the finale set among and around the Thanksgiving Day parade is ingenious. And most refreshingly, none of the humor is cheap or sordid, even when it’s occasionally raunchy. It is, god help me, astonishingly sweet.

I’m truly stunned by how much I love Tower Heist. But delightedly so. Seriously, see this movie and ask yourself why more big, silly entertainments can’t be this not-stupid.

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