While no one will ever mistake Brett Ratner for Orson Welles, I must admit that I have a certain fondness for the man’s films. The major crimes he’s been charged with by most cinephiles is his broad tastes for commercial formulas and the lack of any depth, or even focus, in his execution. But I find that in his sloppiness, a certain liveliness and color comes shining through in a way that a more serious director would be too self-reserved to let loose. While his empty romps are predictable from start-to-finish, that usually doesn’t stop him from dishing out nifty character bits, outrageous gags, and inspired uses of pop music. With formulaic trash, you have to find the fun wherever you can, and Ratner isn’t without a few treats in his bag.
His latest film, Tower Heist, reeks with crowd-pleasing studio calculation. We’re talking big stars in a big heist film, with a New York City backdrop and working-class timeliness to burn. In this time we call the Great Recession, with working-class protestors occupying Wall Street, Ratner is clearly hoping to dish out a blue collar Ocean’s Eleven, with a big entertainment that speaks to the hardships of the masses. Yet in trying to nail a sociological empathy, I’m afraid Ratner ends up limiting Tower Heist from the cockeyed fun he’s typically at ease with. The film is seriously lacking in comic inspiration and it doesn’t help matters that the film’s big heist is too clumsy and preposterous to stand on its own feet. Of course asking for clever wittiness in a Brett Ratner flick is like asking for no violence in a Quentin Tarantino film, but given Ratner’s adolescent need to please, as well as the fact that the screenwriters here were responsible for some of the finest crime capers to ever grace the screen, we expected a little more than what we’re ultimately given.
The film takes place in “the Tower,” a luxury high-rise residence that bears a thinly-veiled resemblance to the real life Trump Tower. Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) is the building manager who looks after all of the staff and rich residents who make up the Tower. The wealthiest resident is Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a Wall Street businessman who once helped Josh put his staff’s pension plan into a lucrative investment opportunity. This proves to be a troublesome decision the day its revealed by FBI Agent Claire Dunham (Tea Leoni) that Shaw is being investigated for a Ponzi scheme and all of the Staff’s investments are perhaps lost for good.
Depressed and devastated by his mistaken judgement, Josh grows desperate for a way to make things right for his staff. Agent Dunham lets it slip that Shaw may have millions of dollars secretly stashed away in his apartment. This allows Josh to hatch a plan: he’ll enlist the aid of his disgruntled staff, which includes his brother-in-law (Casey Affleck), the bellhop (Michael Pena), the Jamaican maid (Gabourey Sidibe), and a bankrupted squatter (Matthew Broderick), to help rob Shaw’s apartment. Since Josh’s crew appears to be incompetent as criminal masterminds, he also enlists the aid of a neighborhood criminal (Eddie Murphy) to help teach his staff the art of the steal. With this ragtag group of would-be thieves, Josh dives headfirst into a plot to rob Shaw’s penthouse, yielding outrageous and life-threatening results.
Its obvious this film wants to play on the working class stresses of most moviegoers, as well as the duped enragement of Bernie Madoff victims, to deliver a wish-fulfillment fantasy of sticking it to greedy big wigs. The problem is that the filmmakers play all this up without any insight whatsoever. They keep highlighting blue collar grievances without articulating the mechanisms or personal afflictions that come with such a situation. Nor is any of the characters’ hardships used for significant laughs. Little-people scrappiness and yearnings for revenge can be aptly harnessed for hilarious laughs, but the film does very little to even get a snicker out of this angle.
We at least look forward to the climactic heist scene being a complicated spectacle, but it turns out to be one of the sloppiest and dumbest heist scenes I can remember. Most cinematic swindles are preposterous by definition, since rarely could they actually happen in the real world, but at least most filmmakers create their own precise logic and shrewd calculation to make them feel involving. The big heist here is completely useless, skirting between tired slapstick and vapid burlesque. The details of the heist prove highly vague and implausible, and the main characters, except for one, don’t appear to have any visible skills or humorous personality traits that would serve them in a giant scheme. Of course the film is trying to (ineptly) poke fun at well-calculated heist flicks, but considering that Ted Griffin wrote Ocean’s Eleven, one of the finest heist films ever made, and Jeff Nathanson wrote Catch Me If You Can, one of the finest con capers in film history, its shocking how little brain power they show when they wrote this script together.
The big news with this film is the return of Eddie Murphy in a role that can showcase his edgy humor and allow him to, you know, swear quite a bit. Unfortunately, Murphy’s outing proves to be mediocre at best. His role is a victim of diminished screen time-a lot smaller than advertised-and a lack of powerhouse one-liners. Aside from a hilarious bit about lesbians, Murphy’s role doesn’t deliver the big laughs we expected. I think the problem is that Murphy’s street-wise criminal is made into too much of a zany weirdo where as most of Murphy’s best material pits him as the Smartest Man in the Room who has the stones and resourcefulness to tell off the bozos surrounding him.
Although Murphy fumbles, the rest of the cast skillfully conveys a delicate balance between working world anxiety and comfortable comic charm. Stiller brings a nice tension and weight to his usual shtick of a befuddled fool, although I wish his unhinged zaniness busted out here a lot more. Of course Alan Alda could teach a master class on loathsome condensation and pretty much does so here. Matthew Broderick does his best work in years as a canned-and-penniless Wall Street Insider who masks a lived-in intelligence under a shell-shocked self-pity. Tea Leoni is surprisingly lively as an FBI Agent, proving that she's at her most fun when she works with Ratner. And it must be said that Michael Pena playing a lovable goofball here gets more laughs than Murphy does.
Since Ratner has indulged in a bromance (Rush Hour), a crime procedural (Red Dragon), a star-wattage ensemble (X-Men: the Last Stand), a silly romp (Money Talks), and a heist flick (After the Sunset), even the most bitter cynics could hope that Ratner has grown as a filmmaker and could put everything he’s garnered into Tower Heist and make it an absolute blast. But even a casual fan like myself, who fully braced himself for a mindless romp, can’t help but notice what an empty experience this flick turns out to be. While most audience members may take some pleasure in the sticking-it-to-corporate-greed subtext, too many moviegoers will be rolling their eyes over the action and yearning desperately for more laughs.