With major protests occupying cities all over the globe and unease about the financial stability of the establishments who swear to protect our hard-earned money reaching an all-time high, it's sort of interesting that "Tower Heist," a ludicrously expensive big budget commodity, can offer some kind of catharsis to ease our worried souls. But, this comedic thriller, which stars a bunch of movie stars that make more in one movie than most Americans make for their entire lives, does just that: it lets us laugh off our neuroses (and, for 104 minutes, that might be enough). The fact that it's a reasonably entertaining, slickly produced trifle is the icing on the cake.
Ben Stiller, who was paid a cool $15 million for a performance that causes him to stretch and play a nervous Jewish guy, stars as Josh Kovacs, a building manager for The Tower, a luxurious high-rise on Manhattan's Columbus Circle. We're introduced to the employees and inhabitants of the tower – there's Casey Affleck as Charlie, a concierge and Josh's brother-in-law; Michael Pena as Enrique, a newly hired elevator operator; Gabourey Sidibe as Odessa, a maid; Judd Hirsch as Josh's boss; and Matthew Broderick as Mr. Fitzhugh, a former Wall Street big shot who recently lost it all (and is being evicted from the building). But towering over all of them, quite literally, is Alan Alda as Arthur Shaw, a billionaire who, shortly after the movie opens, is accused of embezzlement and sentenced to house arrest in his plush penthouse apartment by the lovely FBI Agent Denham (Tea Leoni).
At first the building's employees feel loyal to Shaw, but Josh soon reveals that their pensions were tied up in Shaw's investments (at Josh's urging) and so, essentially, the employees have lost everything. After Josh, Charlie, and Enrique are fired for taking out their hostility on a beloved car Shaw has reassembled in his apartment (supposedly belonging once to Steve McQueen), the ex-employees decide to try and rob Shaw of the $20 million or so the FBI knows he's stashed away.
In order to help their decidedly unthreatening and poorly trained band of criminals, Josh recruits Slide (Eddie Murphy), a criminal who he used to go to school with and occasionally sees hustling on the street. We've seen Murphy a couple of times in the beginning of the movie, lobbing obscenities at the buttoned-up Stiller, but once he really enters the picture, as a part of the gang, it's like the whole movie gets struck by lighting. It's been a while since Murphy's presence in a movie has really mattered, but here it takes on a galvanizing force that significantly enlivens things.
Unlike the Steven Soderbergh 'Ocean's' movies, which this is clearly modeled after ("Ocean's Eleven" screenwriter Ted Griffin worked on the script, as did "Rush Hour 2" scribe Jeff Nathanson, with uncredited help from Noah Baumbach), which run with clocklike precision, "Tower Heist" is a shaggy dog crime story, with the characters being fairly obvious about "casing" the joint while taking a leisurely lunch in a building across the street. It helps that Ratner, who for all his faults as a filmmaker, certainly has a knack for casting (whether you like it or not, just look at how many amazing people he cobbled together for "Red Dragon"), and the unlikely thieves – Broderick, Pena, Affleck, Stiller, and Murphy – make for an inspired comedic team, each with their own frequency that doesn't collide with one another but bounces off in lovely, inspired ways. In particular, Pena once again stands out as one of the most gifted young comedians working in film today, striking the right chord between righteous indignation and goofy amiability.
The specifics of the actual heist are never revealed until it's actually underway, but that doesn't really matter because Ratner and his writers have done such a great job of making you despise Alan Alda's Arthur Shaw. This is a guy who you can't help but hate, and while he's obviously got some Bernie Madoff characteristics, he can sub quite nicely for any member of the white-collar establishment that helped put regular, hardworking Americans in the pit they're in today. Several times our New York audience burst into applause when Shaw got the come-uppance those on Wall Street will never be granted.
And admittedly it's this yeah-fuck-the-man strand of "Tower Heist" that endears it more than it probably should. As the movie slips into the actual crime that takes up much of the first act, set around the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with our characters zooming in dangling from the tower, it veers uneasily between actually suspenseful and thrilling (there are some truly awesome, how'd-they-do-that effects) and goofily implausible and lazy (when the physics in "Puss in Boots" make more sense than in "Tower Heist," there's a problem). Still, it keeps your attention for the duration, mostly thanks to Ratner's own crack technical team (including the gorgeous cinematography of Dante Spinotti and Christophe Beck's propulsive score), pulling off a little heist all their own.
Most "serious" film people tend to write off Ratner, but he's a consummate entertainer who, while never striking for serious art, does well in the incredibly specific field of star-driven action comedies. (There's a reason why he's wanted to make a "Beverly Hills Cop" sequel for so long – because he'd be perfect for it). "Tower Heist" might be his most pleasurable film to date, one stocked with lively performances, occasionally thrilling set pieces, and a surge of populist outrage that makes it more timely and resonant than it has any right being. Sure, at the end of the day it's just a silly little Hollywood movie. But for those 104 minutes, in a Manhattan theater, the people were riled up and ready to occupy. Until the lights came up and they had to throw away their candy wrappers. [B]