(by Dustin Putman
"Tower Heist" marries the smooth-talking intrigue and super-sized ensemble of the "Ocean's Eleven" trilogy with the action-comedy feel of the "Rush Hour" pics. Slight though it is, it's a combo that works surprisingly well under the astute technical tutelage of director Brett Ratner. That his last film was 2007's "Rush Hour 3"—and that he was also responsible for its two predecessors, to boot—is no mere coincidence. As diverting as the characters are, they never grow beyond types and sketches. As amusing as particular segments are, it's not as consistently riotous as viewers might be expecting from a movie pairing Ben Stiller (2009's "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian") with Eddie Murphy (2008's "Meet Dave"). Certain hopeful subplots go nowhere or sputter out without reaching lift-off, let alone their intended destinations. Really, it's an easy target to pick apart. That said, "Tower Heist" moves with such a fleet foot, with such know-how in interweaving its many cast members while using each one of them to their strengths, that it pleases and entertains for just about every one of its 104 minutes. Rock-solid production values and a perilous third-act action set-piece proving to be downright armrest-clinching only sweeten the pot. Article continues below
The Tower is an upscale Manhattan residential high-rise, the rooftop penthouse lived in by one Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a wealthy entrepreneur who spends his time doing laps in his Benjamin Franklin swimming pool and prizing over the classic red Ferrari in his living room that was previously owned by Steve McQueen. Down below, the building's hard-working employees buzz about with no idea that he's stolen all their pensions that they've entrusted him to manage. Arrested for securities fraud before promptly being released on bail, Arthur claims he's innocent and untouchable. FBI agent Claire Denham (Teá Leoni) assures building manager Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) he's not. Faced with the bitter truth that Arthur never cared about any of them and all the more irate after devastated doorman Lester (Stephen McKinley Henderson) nearly takes his own life over the situation, Josh decides he's overstayed his welcome playing by the rules. Teaming up with convicted neighborhood felon Slide (Eddie Murphy) and gathering together a handful of slighted colleagues—among them, elevator operator Enrique (Michael Peña); concierge Charlie (Casey Affleck); laid-off, recently evicted businessman Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick); and Jamaican maid Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe)—Josh begins to plot a complex scheme to snatch the $20-million he's convinced is locked away in Arthur's penthouse.
"Tower Heist" is big-budget formula filmmaking carried out with sophistication—if not air-tight plotting. The screenplay by Ted Griffin (2010's "Killers") and Jeff Nathanson (2004's "The Terminal") sometimes resembles a great treatment or a collection of notes, a jumping-off point for which to build a final-draft script. The characters are rarely seen outside of their jobs with mentions of family—i.e., Charlie's pregnant wife; Mr. Fitzhugh's children—existing only on the spoken periphery. Fast-talking thief Slide wavers so often between "one of the team" and an outsider who cares only about double-crossing them that it's difficult to understand who he is, what his motives are, and where he's coming from. It's pretty clear that Slide was tailor-made for Eddie Murphy; what isn't as obvious is whether anyone paid attention to the logistics of his role once the actor signed the dotted line. Another subplot that introduces a potential romance between Josh and Special Agent Denham goes so far as to set up a dinner date between them, but doesn't follow through. Likewise, the flirtations between Odessa and Slide late in the picture are used as brief comic relief, then awkwardly dropped.
If the film is but a series of loose threads dangling from its central purpose—the grand-scale title heist—then at least it boasts showmanship and behind-the-cameras prowess. The Bernie Madoff-inspired premise is treated with enough seriousness at the start—it is Josh's and his cohorts' very lives and futures at stake, after all—that the viewer believes it and cares about the outcome even as broader humor begins to sneak more and more into the frame. As Josh, Ben Stiller is a solid straight-man in that he's the grounding constant, not because he's humorless. Having broken free from the kiddie fare that has overcome him these last several years, Eddie Murphy looks like his old, better self, having fun with a less politically-correct part that allows him to sneak in a handful of salty zingers. If this had been an R-rated project rather than PG-13, one can only dream of what Murphy might have pulled off with his otherwise scattershot character.
The supporting cast is long and full of talent. Alan Alda (2008's "Flash of Genius") is cool, calm and immensely spiteful as the ego-driven Arthur Shaw. Michael Pena (2009's "Observe and Report"), Casey Affleck (2007's "Gone Baby Gone"), and an especially loose, inspired Matthew Broderick (2006's "Deck the Halls") are terrific as Josh's fellow partners-in-crime, one of their definite highlights being a very funny scene where they must prove to Slide that they've got what it takes to be thieves by each stealing fifty bucks of merchandise in a mall. Teá Leoni (2005's "Fun with Dick and Jane") has a dynamite early scene as FBI agent Claire Denham, exhibiting sharp comic timing as she sizes up Josh over drinks at a bar. And as Odessa, Gabourey Sidibe (2009's "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire") jumps full-throttle into a role that is the polar opposite of her searing Oscar-nominated debut performance. Odessa is thinly written overall, but Sidibe makes her a goofy, endearing original and earns some of the film's bigger laughs.
Everything leads up to the "Tower Heist" in question, and it doesn't disappoint. Much more suspenseful than, say, the one in 2001's "Ocean's Eleven," the film smoothly blends tension with humor, then one-ups everything with an action sequence involving a car dangling outside a skyscraper penthouse window during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade that ranks as one of the most stunningly executed of the whole year. The ending is widely satisfying (if the cheers coming from my screening are any indication, Universal Pictures has a crowd-pleaser on their hands), but so abruptly no-nonsense that it's hard to believe not more was done with certain characters. Like the chess game Josh and Arthur play electronically and refer to throughout, everyone in "Tower Heist" is but a pawn in a larger scheme. The film's themes are timely, yes, but director Brett Ratner mostly cares about surface details. This is where he's most comfortable, and where he ultimately excels.