In today’s troubled financial times, Hollywood-grade sympathy for working stiffs seems at best like a mixed blessing. Take comfort if possible from knowing that lots of people, even below the line of big-paycheck fame, got jobs out of “Tower Heist.”
“Tower Heist” is one of those movies whose duration seems allusively equivalent to the time required for researching and pondering the previous credits of its several screenwriters, collectively responsible for cheeky caper flicks of widely varied pedigree. Maybe more imporant as concerns authorship is director Brett Ratner, purveyor of the “Rush Hour” movies, among others, and readymade sponge of film-cognoscenti scorn. Ratner’s films tend to seem like oil spills, always spreading out as broadly and slickly as possible, somehow at once gushing and trudging.
As its title promises, most of the “Tower Heist” action occurs at a luxe Central Park West condominium (Trump Tower, in vainly uncredited cameo). The penthouse dweller of which, played by Alan Alda, is a Madoffian malefactor who routinely condescends to his full-service staff, not least by siphoning their pensions into his own portfolio. So much for the avuncular doorman’s retirement plans!
This comes as devastating news to building manager Ben Stiller, a paragon of ill-used decency who grew up in the same shabby Queens neighborhood as Alda’s money man, and still lives there, just next door to a decidedly lower-class criminal played by Eddie Murphy. With a tip from wily federal agent Téa Leoni that the smugly unrepentant plutocrat has a stash of millions hidden somewhere, Stiller takes out his anger on the antique Ferrari parked in Alda’s living room. So much for the building manager’s job — not to mention those of his aggression abettors, dopey concierge Casey Affleck and newbie elevator operator Michael Peña!
Before long, yet not quite soon enough, Stiller has recruited them, along with Murphy and condo evictee Matthew Broderick, a washed-up stockbroker, into a scheme of Robin Hood-inspired revenge. And just when it occurs to you that Ratner and company have been doing a not terrible job of tagging and tracking multiple characters, the movie seems to realize that it’ll have to let some of them go. From here it’s all about the dully ridiculous mechanics of the heist itself.
The lore holds that this movie came to be because Murphy had something like an all-black “Ocean’s Eleven” in mind. Obviously “Tower Heist” evolved into something else. Given one dispiriting scene with Murphy getting hit on by Gabourey Sidibe as a plump Jamaican safe-cracking maid, it’s regrettably hard to blame the overall debasement on a relative whitewash. Still, with Murphy in scheming-streetwise-loudmouth mode and Broderick in wryly underplayed despair and vintage Ferrari, it does periodically suggest fondly remembered 1980s caper comedies.
Make no mistake: This is quite proudly a crowd-pleaser. You can hear it in the forward-thrusting funk-pop of Christophe Beck’s score, which gets a little horny sometimes, the too-emphatic melodic equivalent of cutesy-quarrelsome dialogue (Stiller to Murphy: “I don’t want you talking to me for the rest of the robbery!”). But it is recurrently funny — Leoni in particular returns huge capital gains on the filmmakers’ paltry investment in her — and at least less of a bore than the Macy’s Thanskgiving Day Parade, which serves here as a seasonally calculated backdrop.