Since the release of the first “Tower Heist” trailer, this has been a caper flick I’ve looked forward to, and not just because I happen to believe that director Brett Ratner is under-appreciated and unfairly maligned. The plot looked simple (in a good way), the cast looked game, and the timing of a stick-it-to-those-bailed-out welfare queens on Wall Street tale seemed about as perfect as you could hope for. Then, unfortunately, “Tower Heist” pretty much tanked in theatres, which I (incorrectly, as it turned out) assumed meant it wasn’t as much fun as the trailer promised.
“Tower Heist” isn’t only good, it’s also a perfectly satisfying piece of funny, fast-paced, popcorn entertainment. In that “Mission: Impossible III” way, where the tick-tock is so methodical and every step so intelligent, you actually believe someone could break into the Vatican, the “Tower Heist” caper itself is nowhere near as complicated or as clever as you might hope, but it is surprising and even a little thrilling – which is more than you can say for many of its “Oceaney” contemporaries.
Ben Stiller plays Josh Kovacs, the perfect building manager for one of the most elite, luxury high-rises in Manhattan. In all things big and small, Josh’s job is to anticipate the needs of the building’s absurdly wealthy tenants even before they do, and Josh is not only devoted to his clients, he’s also devoted to his eccentric staff (what other kind would there be?). Certainly, there’s the usual day-to-day personality issues and hiccups – the brother-in-law (Casey Affleck) who coasts a bit too much, the Jamaican maid (Gabourey Sidibe ) who desperately needs a green card – but at the end of the day, Josh runs the best building in the city.
While all of Josh’s tenants demand great care, some are naturally more equal than others, especially Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), who lives like a pharaoh on the entire top-floor penthouse. Though Shaw is naturally patronizing, he does appreciate what Josh brings to the job and the two men enjoy something of a mentor/tutor relationship – or at least that’s how it looks on the surface. As things turn out, Josh might’ve been nothing more than bait. Liked everyone else, Josh believes Shaw made his billions from a unique ability to successfully invest other people’s money. So with the best of intentions, Josh turned the staff’s pensions over to Shaw to invest on their behalf. When Shaw is arrested for running a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme, Josh realizes that he got hustled and that he handed every hope and dream his staff had over to a shark, who spent it on nothing more than the frivolities needed to pretend he was still a wildly successful billionaire as his tower of financial lies collapsed around him.
Shaw’s under house arrest, about to be prosecuted, and if convicted will have his assets liquidated. But those assets won’t cover all of his creditors and the big banks, that are always first in line, are going to get every penny. This means that the life’s work of many, including Josh and his staff, has been wiped out to fund the lavish lifestyle of a slimy, arrogant criminal. Worse still, some of the very same people Shaw ripped off are the very same people who waited on him hand and foot for years.
For obvious reasons, Josh blames himself and between his guilt and a number of plot turns he eventually finds himself in a situation where he can choose to do nothing or choose to go way outside his comfort zone and steal everyone’s money back. It’s no secret that guys like Shaw always stash away a golden parachute and with the help of his eccentric staff and a local criminal, Slide (Eddie Murphy), who harasses him every morning and Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), an honest financial high-roller who got wiped out, Josh decides to go for it.
As you can see, the set up isn’t at all complicated, so all that matters is the execution, which is every bit as entertaining as you would expect from a cast of this caliber. Each is given plenty to do and the heist itself is pretty exciting.
There’s a lot of talk around the film about how Eddie Murphy is “back,” but I wouldn’t go that far. In an early scene, a camera shot down a long row of prison cells is supposed to summon memories of Murphy’s breakthrough performance in 1982’s “48 Hours,” but that edge of anger and danger that made Reggie Hammond so iconic is nowhere to be seen. Without a doubt, Murphy’s funny, but he’s more star than street.
Something to truly appreciate about “Tower Heist” is how apolitical it is. If there’s any kind of sucker punch, it’s aimed at hypocritical, left-wing gajillionaires who puff themselves up as Obama-voting populists as they steal our tax dollars through lobbyist-created loopholes and bailouts. Is there any other way to interpret the picture of Mao on Arthur Shaw’s wall?
Well directed, well performed, entertaining, timely, and a holder of your attention. “Tower Heist” delivers all you could possibly ask for and more.
"Tower Heist" is available at Amazon.com.