There’s a long and storied tradition of heist films in cinema, and no small number of those films are draped in a dyed-in-the-wool “fuck the man” ethos. Of late, we’ve had far less anti-establishment peanut butter in our heist-film chocolate, but if there’s any time for populist payback on our silver screens, I think we can all agree that now’s as ripe a time as any.
But whereas the sadly overreaching In Time sci-fi inequality underpinnings felt like a happy accident in the midst of an otherwise unfortunate trainwreck, Brett Ratner‘s latest assault on cinema, Tower Heist, wears its blue-collar leanings on its sleeve like the world’s least subtle Livestrong bracelet. If only as much thought had gone into the pacing (and plot) of this little-guys-strike-back farce as it did for how to stuff as much working-stiff sympathy into 104 minutes, we might have had ourselves an entertaining little bout of payback by proxy.
Unfortunately, Ratner (who I hold could not have destroyed the X-Men franchise more completely than if he made Jar-Jar Dark Phoenix) seemed to take an obvious love of 70′s heist films with one serious Xanax chaser.
Which is a shame really, since a cast as fine as Ben Stiller (working his understated poor-guy sincerity to the limit), Eddie Murphy (showing hints of the comedic actor we all wish he’d remember how to be), Matthew Broderick (whose hangdog eyes and casual smarts are sorely wasted), and Alan Alda (who, it must be said, absolutely kills it as the smarmy rogue financier) are ultimately undercut by a film that can’t quite decide how angry (or how funny) it wants to be. In the end, Tower Heist settles for a neutered medium that can’t fully deliver on either.
The premise: The helpful staff of an exclusive slice of New York real estate known as The Tower (itself a lazy pseudonym for the famous Trump Tower — so lazy in fact that the exteriors are of Trump Tower itself) are devastated to find out that their star occupant (Alda) is under indictment for massive financial fraud, and oh-by-the-way their pension was the tiniest fraction of the billions he’s accused of squandering.
After a few twists I shan’t ruin, as they provide a genuine emotional moment, building manager Josh Kovacs (Stiller) decides to lead his brother-in-law (Casey Affleck, whose deadpan delivery feels like a subdued Christopher Walken), a newly hired elevator operator (Michael Peña), a investment burn-out evictee (the sorely wasted Broderick), and a jailbird thief (Murphy) in a daring Thanksgiving Day heist to take back what they’ve lost.
Along the way we get oddly well-realized FBI Agent Claire Denham (Téa Leoni in a role she’s certainly no stranger to), a Jamaican housekeeper ne safecracker (Gabourey Sidibe sporting a truly unfortunate attempt at a Kingston accent), and a host of lazy stereotypes there to fill in Ratner’s contract-mandated dose of ethnic sass.
But to be fair: Tower Heist sports a cast of (mostly) well-seasoned actors who inhibit their roles with easy nonchalance. Alda especially uses his good-guy image to his characters advantage. Even when he’s pouring on 200 proof sleazy smarm, he’s selling it with considerable aplomb. Stiller seems to have never forgotten the rule the Farrelly brothers taught him on the set of There’s Something About Mary: Give a character enough heart at the upfront and you’ve got the audience on your side for the duration. Beset-upon Kovacs is a genuinely nice guy, and it’s hard not to root for him, no matter how ridiculous the plot gets. And Eddie Murphy … oh, man. It’s not the Murphy we want, but if Tower Heist is his first step in leaving family films behind on a road back to comedic relevance then I have to say: He shows us hints of the guy we wish was still making movies, and that’s enough to keep you on board for a bit.
The heist itself almost secondary to the back-and-forth of the cast (and the “Goddammit, we’re mad at Wall Street” mantra that awaits nearly every scene change), and indeed it’s filled with plot holes big enough to accommodate tractor trailers filled with every heist film ever made. Indeed Sidibe’s Jamaican sass-monster character seems to disappear for the last 20 minutes of the heist itself (which is jarring since there’s a shot that seems to set up a scene that we never see), but there are a couple of physics-defying moments in the big set piece that managed to keep the audience gasping (and would have been heart-stopping on an IMAX screen). I like to imagine Casey Affleck on the set regaling the cast between takes with stories that begin “Back when I was making Ocean’s Eleven…” while Ratner threatens to replace him with Scott Caan.
I’ll make no apologies for this: All Ratner had to do was turn in a film that didn’t make me want to stab someone for me to call it a win, and Tower Heist cleared that bar (if sloppily so). In fact, this is a film that’s almost subdued in tone: Its highs are not so much as to offset the lulls, and the heist manages true tension, in but fits and moments. However there are some genuine laughs, and it’s so very hard to not want to root for this crew of hapless fools in their quest to right such a grievous wrong. And sure, Ratner knows that’s working in his favor (nor does he let us forget it), but I walked out of the theater thinking “You know, if this was on cable at 11:30 on a Friday night I’d probably end up watching it.”
It’s EZ-Bake populism at best, but maybe that’s the best baby-step we 99% can hope for from an industry that couldn’t find its way out of 1%-hood if it tried.