Early reviews of this film resulted in the general consensus being that it was merely above average. That it was not a bad film, but that it did not quite have the elements required to make it a great one either. It is hard to argue with that.
Tower Heist is neither a thoroughly hilarious, laugh-out-loud comedy, nor an unusually stylish and witty crime caper. It’s neither a straight-played, slick variation on the Ocean’s movies, nor a raucous comedy version of the same. It paddles in the middle-ground to both, somehow keeping its head above the water for the duration, having a few exceptionally funny bits, a few particularly clever moments; led by an on-good-form Ben Stiller but distinguished by the participation of Eddie Murphy, who, for the first time in what feels like over a decade, is actually funny in a role that does not require him to play seven fat people who fart.
You will probably like it quite a bit, and perhaps that’s more than many expected from this unholy union of oddball characters – almost like an anti-ensemble cast – but it’s doubtful that many will absolutely love it. That said, after a year of pretty disappointing comedies, Tower Heist is at least a reliably entertaining way to while away your time.
The story follows the staff of The Tower, a luxury apartment block in New York. Josh Kovacs is the attentive building manager, who takes pride in knowing the finest of details about his clients, and using that knowledge to make their lives easier and more comfortable. Very hands-on, he knows as much about his staff as he does about his clients, and manages the building like a fluid, well-oiled machine.
However, when one of the building’s most revered long-term residents, wealthy businessman Arthur Shaw, is put under house arrest – accused of running an investment scam – Josh’s well-organised life begins to go off the rails. You see Josh had used Arthur Shaw to invest the pension funds from all of his staff members, and now it appears that they will never see a dime of that money again. And when Shaw laughs in the face of the ‘poor people’ who he has taken for a ride, Josh decides to take drastic action and, with the help of a select few willing participants, puts a plan in motion to get the money back.
If you think this all sounds a little “Ocean’s” then you’ll soon understand why. The first writer on this project apparently wrote a draft which was too much like Ocean’s Eleven, so director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour Trilogy, Red Dragon) replaced him. The second writer was... the guy who wrote Ocean’s Twelve. Guess what happened to the script? Thankfully, the film didn’t turn out quite as bad as the first Ocean’s sequel (despite a further two rewrites) and a big reason for this – I think – is the presence of Eddie Murphy.
Now Murphy was involved right from the get-go, intending this to be an all-black heist comedy, with him in the lead role. Supposedly, when the script started to sound too much like Ocean’s Eleven he jumped ship (although I have no idea why that would have put him off – unless it sounded too much like, heaven forbid, he might actually end up making a good movie), only to be drawn back in by Ratner fairly late on into the second draft stage. The two things that the script does well is a) play out as a Robin Hood tale for the modern generation of recession-locked Occupy Wall Street citizens and b) occasionally stray into distinctly 48-Hours territory. It’s clear that the latter is in large part thanks to Murphy, who works wonders with a fairly limited role.
Of course, he lost out the lead position to Ben Stiller, who is unquestionably the star, even if his isn’t the most noteworthy performance. Stiller capably drives the narrative; seems a strong leader both in terms of the building that he has to manage and also the team that he had to run. Although he’s clearly getting older, his greying hair does not appear to have sapped his drive one bit, and at least he’s not trying to look young. He can also still do decent comedy without needing to be the butt of everybody’s jokes, and offers up a nice companion-piece role to the one he provided in Tropic Thunder.
The bunch of misfits really is the comedy equivalent of the Ocean’s crew. In fact it even includes one of them – Casey Affleck (The Killer Inside Me) – who offers up a hint of classic deadpan Christopher Walken in his seemingly ambivalent dialogue delivery, playing the building’s concierge and Stiller’s inept brother-in-law. There’s also the warmly amusing Michael Pena, as the elevator operator. I loved him in Crash, but I also loved him opposite Seth Rogen in the hilarious Observe and Report, and it’s clear that he has a talent for comedy. Then there’s Ferris Bueller himself, Matthew Broderick, who really hasn’t done a great deal of note since his 80s heyday (which included a surprisingly good dramatic performance in Glory), returning to the stage for the majority of his post-2000 work. Broderick should feel totally out of place in this film but, to be honest, it’s such an odd bunch that he actually fits right in, his meek failed Wall Street Banker quite a pleasantly humbled version of the usual character we see from him.
Beyond the team we get an excellent nemesis in Alan “M.A.S.H.” Alda, who has made a latter-end career out of playing political characters that we love to hate (The Aviator, The West Wing). Here he is the perfect villain, a slimy, arrogant, elitist scam artist who you are simply begging to see get his comeuppance. Tea Leoni (Bad Boys, Spanglish) also gets a halfway decent supporting role as the FBI Agent who wants to help Ben Stiller find justice, but is compelled by the restrictions of her position.
The biggest surprise comes from Gabourey Sidibe, however, the Oscar-nominated star of Precious, who is surprisingly good with her comedy timing and faux Jamaican accent, playing a late member drafted into the heist group; one who regularly proves she’s more than any of the men in the team can handle.
Then there’s Murphy himself. Even though I had already heard about how good he was in this movie, I was still surprised – and disappointed – by his contribution: surprised because he really did manage to bring us a hint of the old magic; disappointed because I can’t help but wonder what he might have done with an entire lead vehicle to himself. Yes, I know, he probably would have ruined it, and we’d have had Murphy playing all 6 team members in fat-suits and drag, but there was also a chance that he might have pulled off his first decent lead role in what feels like forever.
Murphy plays a petty crook who lives in the same neighbourhood as Ben Stiller’s character and is pulled into the gang for his supposed criminal expertise. What follows involves so many hints of that classic trademark Murphy wit and attitude that you can’t help but smile at almost having the great actor back. Smatterings of his 48 Hours performance creep in to this, his most enjoyable role in over a decade (not forgetting his great dramatic performance in the otherwise terrible Dreamgirls) and the master behind several of the most funny sequences (including a fantastic, improvised safe-cracking sequence opposite a totally game Sidibe). Indeed his character doesn’t feel like he is playing by the same rules as anybody else involved in this movie; as if Murphy was drafted in at the last minute and just told to bully his way into the film, which basically involves underhandedly grandstanding and usurping the entire team, both as actors and characters. And he does – in a good way.
The trouble is, despite their best efforts, and even with Murphy pulling more than his weight, the cast still don’t have quite the right script or story to work with. The humour isn’t potent enough; the heist elements are vaguely conceived and poorly realised – but for one singularly spectacular centrepiece; and even the tone jumps around a little bit (when characters start waving guns at each other it just doesn’t feel very funny or dramatic), failing to quite strike that balance that Ocean’s Eleven so effectively did, and failing to compete with the laugh-out-loud hilarity of the post-Superbad sub-genre of comedies.
No, at the end of the day, Tower Heist, in spite of its trying-their-best cast, and initially quite topical premise, never really graduates into the realms of being a particularly great movie, merely sitting proudly atop its above average pedestal. But that’s really not such a bad thing: by not taking too many risks, and not doing anything too outlandish (this is about as far away from gross-out humour as you could get), Tower Heist remains a reliably entertaining, occasionally very funny, and generally pretty enjoyable watch whilst never once falling flat on its face. With so many comedies out there that do precisely that, perhaps there’s no point criticising this one just because it isn’t amazing – maybe reliably above-average will actually suffice. And, if it won’t, then you’ll still want to watch this for an almost-back-to-his-old-self-Eddie-Murphy.
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