Movie Review: “Tower Heist” Could Use a Loftier View

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

In “Tower Heist’s” opening sequence, Brett Ratner’s peripatetic camera delineates the major enterprise it is to run New York’s most elite apartment house while also noting the sense of community its employees share. Vintage Arthur Hailey (“Hotel”), the cozy sociology holds such promise. Too bad the comedy caper that ensues fails to fulfill it.

The laughs are intermittent as building manager Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) dons the role of a modern-day Robin Hood to recover funds pilfered from his band of once merry men by the Madoff-like fraud perched in the penthouse. While the film adeptly plies its genre stencil, the lack of both signature and soul deters it from attaining that comic high note.

Truly engaging farce requires that we embrace the protagonists. Outlandish as Laurel and Hardy are, we’re confident they exist, that they have a life when we’re not looking. While we kind of think Ben Stiller’s Kovacs lives outside the frame, the rest of his gang, although sporadically funny, merely represents the moving statuary the script requires.

This includes Eddie Murphy as Slide, the small-time thief/street thug Josh brings in to give his gambit a professional boost. Yes, it’s nice to see him back in the fold. And his characterization isn’t bad. But it seems as if he no longer has the business of laughter in his belly. A more heartfelt performance might have made for a zanier, ensemble synergy.

But aha, there is a dastardly good villain… the guy you love to hate. Alan Alda is despicably delightful as the duplicitous, disingenuous and whatever other adjectives describe those who not only have no qualms about appropriating other people’s money, but arrogantly believe it’s their right. He alone is reason enough to occupy Wall Street.

In this case he has depleted the pensions of all those who toil in the tony tenement. Hey, serves ‘em right thinking they could triple their money. Adding insult to injury, it appears Alda’s Arthur Shaw has the N.Y. bench in his grease-filled pocket. Even the vigilance of Téa Leoni’s FBI Special Agent Claire Denham can’t wipe the lousy smirk from his face.

Josh, however, is undeterred. You see, ‘twas he, all chummy in a rich guy-dutiful servant sort of way (they even played chess online), who asked Shaw to please multiply thrice the portfolios. Now, double-crossed by the crooked king, his adopted mantra is “storm the castle.” It takes convincing, but he eventually forms his crew of accomplices.

Helping lead the charge are, Casey Affleck’s Charlie, the inefficient concierge otherwise distracted by his wife’s expectant condition; Enrique (Michael Peña), the slick, plebe errand boy who doesn’t know to be nervous; and housekeeper Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe), who, quite conveniently, learned safecracking from her locksmith dad back in Jamaica

And just to add a touch of class, there’s Matthew Broderick’s poor, poor Mr. Fitzhugh. Shaw’s genteel antithesis, he is the Street’s onetime golden boy from Yale. But alas, he has lost the touch, and thus his ritzy condo, too. Since his wife and kids have bailed, he figures there’s nothing left to lose except his freedom, and maybe his life.

Though there’s a twist or two, expect no epiphanic surprises. The amateurs alternately bumble and impress, causing us a pleasing titter every time they manage a bit of criminal derring-do. Conversely adding a bit of subtext, Murphy’s ringer, not quite the expert he’d like you to think he is, plays blowhard critic and never fully trusted confederate.

Meanwhile, forming the sub-plot, a conflict of interest looms as Josh and FBI lady Claire trade the sort of barbs that have signaled potential romance ever since film first took to reel. While O.K., the zingers are hardly Colbert and Gable in “It Happened One Night’ (1934) or Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally” (1989).

But here’s my real problem. Rodney Dangerfield said it best when he explained the inherent difficulties of playing tough clubs in neighborhoods like Red Hook and Canarsie… places where you went down two steps, socially and physically. Beseeched Rodney, “How do you make guys who are up for manslaughter laugh?”

Well, we’re not up for manslaughter. But this economic thing really has us down. It’s not just the hardship it causes folks in the middle and lower classes, but the insult it is to the very idea of humanity, the great cover-up in plain sight that poses as a legitimate, fiscal argument. Bet some even wish they could dig up Joe McCarthy to sic those wise to ‘em.

You’d have to lock up more than one faux Madoff to give us a truly big laugh. Vicarious revenge is self-defeating. With this topic we need fiction to create the sort of acerbic muckrake that makes us laugh via its truthful insights…the kind of thing Twain wrote.

Stuff that might make a difference. A tall order, it’s way out of “Tower Heist’s” reach.

“Tower Heist,” rated PG-13, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Brett Ratner and stars Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Téa Leoni and Alan Alda. Running time: 104 minutes

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