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'Tower Heist' plays it safe

The ensemble comedy from schlock-master Brett Ratner is slick and occasionally funny.

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There aren't many Ben Stiller movies that you would refer to by the director's name, but in the case of "Tower Heist," a mildly cathartic, modestly amusing comedy, we find a Ben Stiller movie that is most definitely a Brett Ratner movie. Ratner, the onetime music video wunderkind, is now best known for the "Rush Hour" series plus "Red Dragon" and "X-Men: The Last Stand" and for generally rejecting logic in lieu of spectacle. If you wondered which director would one day (spoiler alert) find a way to dangle Matthew Broderick off the side of a skyscraper, or to have someone drive a delivery truck up through a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade marching band formation, or to (blessedly) wash out family-friendly Eddie Murphy's mouth with a bar of vulgarity, look no further. The visuals and the music are slicker than your teeth after a trip to the dentist. Some of the jokes are even kind of funny. Sure, the script contains all of two, maybe two-and-a-half surprises, but the audience in the screening I attended literally clapped at the end, so whaddayagonnado.

The ubiquitous trailer is the most thorough of any movie in recent memory, but let's recap for those who haven't been to a multiplex release in the past month or so. Stiller is Josh, the manager of New York's schmanciest high-rise condo tower (itself played by the Trump Tower), where an array of dowagers and Wall Street types pay through the nose for awesome security and 'round-the-clock feting by the staff. The penthouse is owned by a billionaire money manager named Arthur Shaw, acted beautifully as a black-hearted, patronizing fiend by Alan Alda. He and Josh enjoy a rapport, even playing online chess against one another, but when Shaw is busted for having defrauded his clients — the building employees' pension fund among them — Josh melts down, gets fired from the tower and conspires to steal the tens of millions in cash he figures, going on a tip by FBI agent Téa Leoni, must be secreted in Shaw's lair, with its massive Warhol Mao on the wall.

What follows is a bit like "Ocean's 11," without the star wattage, the gadgets or the attention to, like, detail. Josh conscripts a Merrill Lynch washout (that would be Broderick, flaccidly), the building concierge (Casey Affleck, likeably) and a recent-hire bellhop (Michael Peña) to join him in taking the place down from the inside, sort of. To bolster their felonious cred, he also enlists Murphy's fast-talking, hard-squinting small-timer Slide out of the clink to offer pointers. Gabourey Sidibe — known to most for her title role in "Precious" — is memorable as a ferocious, lascivious Jamaican housekeeper.

Naturally you root for the ragtag band of service workers, so accustomed to being the lickspittles to the financial titans who overlook both Central Park and Times Square while reading their morning Wall Street Journal. But "Tower Heist," for its fairly talented cast, doesn't reach much beyond the obvious pathos. The working stiffs are, for the most part, still pretty stiff by the end of the film; save for some manic delivery by Murphy, and one unexpectedly absurdist discourse digression about lesbians, there's not a great deal of comedy here to recommend. It may be a tad more gratifying to anyone who was bilked by Bernie Madoff, or anyone hoping to enjoy this Occupy Wall Street moment from the comfort of stadium seating, watching a multiculti band of marginal screwups try to chisel eight figures out of a scoundrel. Ratner could certainly do worse than a caper with which 99 percent of the potential audience can identify.

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