'Tower Heist' Review: Murphy Reclaims his Comic Mojo
You can call back the search parties; the funny Eddie Murphy has been found and is alive, well and part of the crack ensemble comedy "Tower Heist."
No fat suits, kiddie co-stars or superfluous sequels. Just Murphy being Murphy - fast talking, lightning fast and utterly captivating.
But Murphy's renaissance isn't all that's right with "Tower Heist." Much maligned director Brett Ratner (the "Rush Hour" trilogy) squeezes everything out of his cast to make this a rare treat - a mainstream action comedy that doesn't insult the audience.
Ben Stiller stars as Josh Kovacs, a dedicated hotel manager who knows precisely how to make every guest happy. He's especially clued into the building's resident millionaire, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda). The two play chess via their computers, and Josh makes it his business to see that all of Arthur's material needs are met.
Arthur insists he's still just a kid from Astoria, even if he swims in a rooftop pool every evening. It's a nice pose, one that has the hotel workers fooled ... for a while.
Josh's image of Arthur is shattered when a team of FBI agents swarm the hotel and arrest the millionaire on embezzlement charges. What's worse is that Josh entrusted Arthur with not only his personal pension but those belonging to his fellow hotel workers. Now, that money appears gone for good.
The affable Josh isn't ready to kiss all that cash goodbye, at least not without a fight. He devises a plan to break into Arthur's hotel suite and steal the man's millions - assuming that he's actually hid them so close to home.
The catch? Neither Josh not his fellow tower heisters - a broke family man (Matthew Broderick), a naive electrician (Michael Pena) and a father to be (Casey Affleck) know the first thing about breaking - or entering. So Josh bails out an old childhood acquaintance named Slide (Murphy) to teach them the fine art of thievery.
Ratner's films almost always make serious coin, but he's engendered very little respect from film critics. That's an oversight that should be corrected starting with "Heist." Ratner makes sure we get to know, and bond with, the characters swindled by Arthur. And while Hollywood loves to demonize the rich, Alda brings a texture to his character that defies lazy stereotypes.
Stiller radiates his stock Everyman appeal, but he gives Josh a hint of a New Yawk accent to lend the character some bite. It's a tiny touch, but a welcome one since too many Manhattan-based films don't even bother to try. Even better is how Stiller modulates his relationship with Arthur, segueing from genuine admiration to a sinking sense of distrust.
The film's best comic moments were spoiled in the trailer, but given context they zip along merrily, the cast eager to exploit every last gesture for our amusement. Murphy, in essentially a throwback role, is the scene stealer of choice, toying with language as it suits his needs. Just watch him flirt with a Jamaican safe cracker ("Precious" star Gabourey Sidibe). The script, credited to Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson, fails Murphy's character by muddying Slide's motivations in the final reel.
The tastiest surprise here is Tea Leoni, cast as a crusty FBI agent with a soft spot for Josh. Her character gets drunk with Josh early in the film, the two engaging in the kind of banter which lets us see them as real, wonderfully flawed people.
The film hums along for its first hour, adroitly balancing plot essentials, character portraits and blue-collar elegance until the frenzied finale. Can any blockbuster-in-waiting give us a final act of consequence? At least "Tower Heist" sustains its giddiness by putting the main characters in harm's way, where we wait ... and wait ... to see if they can extract themselves from one serious calamity after another.
"Tower Heist" won't go down as one of Murphy's best comedies. Films like "Beverly Hills Cop," "Coming to America" and "Bowfinger" still stand in the way. But Murphy's turn here bodes well not only for his career but the biggest gig he'll get in 2012 - hosting the Academy Awards telecast.