A film review by Craig J. Koban November 10, 2011


2011, PG-13, 104 mins.


Josh: Ben Stiller / Slide: Eddie Murphy / Charlie: Casey Affleck / Arthur Shaw: Alan Alda / Mr. Fitzhugh: Matthew Broderick / Agent Denham: Tea Leoni / Enrique: Michael Pena / Odessa: Gabourey Sidibe / Mr. Simon: Judd Hirsch

Directed by Brett Ratner / Written by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson.

It has often been said that the heist film is only as good as, well, its main heist.  The very finest examples of the genre are ones where the planned caper in question is methodically outlined, planned, and executed with all of the requisite shocking twists therein.  Part of the pure enjoyment derived from these types of films rests solely in the details of the scheme itself and all of the setbacks and obstructions that impede the progress of the protagonists. 

Brett Ratner’s TOWER HEIST is a peculiar heist film because its climatic heist is so far-fetched, so preposterous, and concludes in such an unconvincing fashion that it should have all but derailed the film.  It’s okay for film heists to be utterly convoluted and seemingly impossible to pull off, but it helps when you have characters that come across as being up to the task of accomplishing such an complicated and intricate plan.  The likeable, but somewhat hapless and downtrodden personas in TOWER HEIST come off as so uncoordinated and ill-footed that your suspension of disbelief in their abilities is elevated to dizzying extremes.  

The key to TOWER HEISTS’ success, though, is not with the realism of its central robbery (it's pure inanity), but rather with its likeable characters.  The film contains a rich ensemble of notable comic-dramatic actors that assists with the pure enjoyment factor of the film; the scenes that highlight their brothers-in-arms camaraderie together as they hatch their ultimate recession-era revenge theft keeps the film merrily moving along.  The performers all find a nice groove together with one another and are so good together that they essentially help to override any issues viewers will most likely have with the implausibility of their plan.  TOWER HEIST ain’t no OCEAN’S ELEVEN, nor is it trying to be.  It’s a appealing, modestly funny, and entertaining fluff piece showcasing its talent…and not much more. 

At the risk of using clichés, the story of the film is sort of ripped from the headlines…at least of the economic variety.  Most of the film resides within the luxurious confines of a high rise Manhattan tower complex that contains apartments priced in the millions.  In the top penthouse resides a multi-billionaire named Arthur Shaw (a deceptively awesome Alan Alda) that has made a fortune as a financial guru.  He’s so stinking rich he even owns a bright red 1953 Ferrari that was once the property of Steve McQueen and had to be taken apart and then reassembled piece by piece to be placed in his living room as a trophy.  Hmmm…you just known that the movie rule involving all priceless antique cars dictates that this Ferrari will not just sit idle for the remainder of the film. 

Shaw is looked after by the tower’s help, and on any given day they look after all of his needs in meticulous and well-timed detail.  There’s the concierge, Charlie (Casey Affleck); the elevator man, Enrique (Michael Pena); the approaching-retirement doorman, Lester (Stephen McKinley Henderson); and their boss, Josh (Ben Stiller) who takes his job as seriously as a heart attack.  He has a very good and trusting working relationship with Mr. Shaw, so good that he elected to have both his and his employees' retirement funds be re-invested by Shaw.  Of course, this level of intimate trust hits a wall, so to speak, when the FBI comes charging in, led by agent Claire Denham (Tea Leoni) and captures Shaw and promptly puts him in handcuffs. 



It appears that Shaw’s duplicitous financial dealings would make Bernie Madoff blush.  Not only has he been running a deceitful Ponzi scheme for years, but he also was doing it with all of the tower staff’s retirement funds, leaving them with nothing in the aftermath.  Josh sees this, obviously enough, as the ultimate betrayal of trust, so he decides to enact a wicked revenge plan to secretly gain access to Shaw’s apartment (now being monitored 24/7 by the FBI) and find Shaw’s hidden safe where he presumably has millions of undeclared dollars.  Josh realizes that his knowledge of the intricate security systems in the tower will only get him so far, so he recruits his fellow staff members to embark on his plan for ultimate comeuppance.  He also recruits a chamber maid (PRECIOUS’ Gabourey Sidibe) - that just happens to be an expert safe cracker - and a tower resident that was once a Wall Street shark, now a flat broke everyman, Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick) to help with the details.  However, Josh takes his biggest gamble on getting the help of a small time hood named Slide (Eddie Murphy) to assist with teaching these nine-to-five working stiffs how to be gangsta criminals. 

I don’t want to say anything specific about the heist itself (far too many critics have spoiled the details already; shame, shame on you all!), other than to say that, as stated, it’s the film’s weakest component.  It culminates in something, shall we say, very, very large and heavy being dangled out of Shaw’s penthouse apartment while the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade is occurring far below (funny, not one parade spectator sees this).  The perfunctory twist in the heist itself is not all that surprising as it’s pretty much telegraphed very early in the film.  Considering the fact that TOWER HEIST was written by the men who respectively wrote MATCHSTICK MEN, OCEAN'S ELEVEN and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (Jeff Nathanson and Ted Griffin) I was expecting perhaps a more fiendishly ingenious and delicately layered robbery.  No dice, here. 

Yet, the film is always satisfying because of its star power.  Stiller in particular is kind of refreshingly reigned-in as his heist leader (the temptation must have been there for him to ham it up, but he exerts some control and discipline here playing the straight man).  Matthew Broderick gets some strong laughs as his sad sack and penniless Wall Street victim ("If you need me, I’ll be living in this box,” he hilarious deadpans at one point).  Gabourey Sidibe is splendid as a tough as nails Jamaican who likes to mix it up with the boys.  Michael Pena is also likeable here (he might be the only actor that can plausible alternate between playing idiotic and clever roles).  Casey Affleck brings his trademark rapid-fire verbosity and Tea Leoni is feisty and empowered as her FBI agent. 

Two performances stand out for me, the first being the remarkably undervalued Alan Alda, who seems to be churning out a new film career path for himself for playing ruthless baddies whose grandfatherly charm masks a contemptuous and slimy villainy.  Then there is Eddie Murphy, who has not been this funny in a film since 1999’s BOWFINGER playing the type of roles that made him a star: wisecracking, crude, belligerent, and joyously unhinged streetwise motormouths.  Seeing the 50-year-old comedy star (!)  return to the movies after a three-year hiatus – and after a decade of truly regrettable comedy and family film misfires – and return to his edgy and unpredictable form of yesteryear is a real treat.  He’s not in TOWER HEIST much until about the middle of the picture, but when he’s sprung loose he all but dominates every scene he’s in. 

Ratner himself is not a director that inspires a whole lot of confidence in some critics, as his career has been a tumultuous pendulum of varying degrees of quality.  However, he made, for my money, the second best film featuring Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector in RED DRAGON as well as the very entertaining RUSH HOUR and the fairly well assembled X-MEN III.  Ratner’s skills, I think, are at gathering together components to manufacture broad-scale, audience-placating hits.  Most of his films are empty-minded and don’t have much - if anything - to say, and TOWER HEIST is no exception (it seems almost petrified to engage in any topical discourse about our recent economic woes).  The film certainly has its limitations, but TOWER HEIST is snappy, energetic, and, most importantly, fun and hard to dislike as long as you’re willing to disregard its more implausibly mind boggling elements.  

Don’t get me started on that Ferrari.  

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