David Lee
November 09, 2011 at 05:00 AM EST

Tower Heist

Current Status
In Season
109 minutes
Wide Release Date
Casey Affleck, Alan Alda, Eddie Murphy, Ben Stiller
Brett Ratner
Universal Pictures
Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Ted Griffin, Jeff Nathanson
Comedy, Action Adventure
We gave it a C+

Although the tower in question in the gimcrack action comedy Tower Heist is fictional, many New York tourists will recognize the aggressive nouveau-riche opulence of the building’s exterior as that of an actual Manhattan hotel condominium owned by aggressive nouveau-riche Donald Trump. The aesthetic pairing of The Donald and director Brett Ratner is a natural. This brassy production, an imitation Ocean’s 13½, features the name-brand talents of Ben Stiller (as an honorable Tower manager named Josh) and Eddie Murphy (as a con man called Slide) leading rookie thieves in an elaborate Robin Hood-style heist. Their target? The oversize penthouse of one Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a shady billionaire who keeps a rare 1963 Ferrari in his living room.

In other words, Tower Heist is the cinematic version of a Trump property: overblinged, eye-catching, and essentially tacky. For a movie that claims its heart is with the masses — the 99 percent! — there’s an awful lot of production-design admiration lavished on the trappings of the effing-rich 1 percent. (Ratner had specific ideas about which pedigreed modern-art reproductions he wanted on the walls.) Shaw is a fictional variation on Bernie Madoff: Entrusted with the retirement savings of the multicultural low-wage employees who keep the Tower running, he takes their money and ruins their lives. And so, rallied by egalitarian friend-to-all Josh — the guy takes the subway to work from Queens, so you know he’s a mensch — and hastily educated in criminal technique by Josh’s less honorable Queens neighbor Slide, these blue-collar little people rise up in triumph to steal their money back. By the moral standards of Occupy Hollywood, the crime earns an ethical thumbs-up.

You may think I am picking too much on what’s built to be a fun, diverting, New York-state-of-mind caper comedy — a joke-filled cavalcade that marks 50-year-old Eddie Murphy’s welcome return to the edgier stuff that made him famous. Alrighty, let’s talk about Murphy: He’s nowhere to be found in the first half of the movie! And he’s only there to illuminate selected scenes in the second: He’s like the spot lighting supplied by a big-ass chandelier in an ostentatious Trump lobby. That’s too bad, because when Murphy is on screen, his comedic vigor — reminiscent of Chris Tucker’s jive-talk mania in Ratner’s Rush Hour movies but with a blast of Murphy-specific danger — gooses the movie’s energy level. I’ve missed that guy.

But whenever Murphy wanders off, the movie’s pulse rate drops. Tower Heist is in effect two movies: One belongs to Murphy, the other to the rest of the cast. Josh’s drippy in-house recruits include Matthew Broderick as a broke ex–Wall Streeter and Tower resident (and the kind of fretful nebbish he perfected on Broadway in The Producers); Michael Peña as an uncouth rookie bellhop; and Ocean’s alumnus Casey Affleck as an unreliable concierge who happens to be Josh’s stressed-out brother-in-law. (The band of gentlemen credited with the story and screenplay includes Ted Griffin, who worked on Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 Ocean’s Eleven.)

Two female characters also join the increasingly frantic male-driven mayhem. (Here’s where I mention with an eye roll that, in what I hope is a quickly passing trend in male- as well as female-driven comedies, vaginas are briefly discussed, this time by Affleck.) Téa Leoni, who worked with the director 11 years ago in The Family Man, gamely plays a no-nonsense FBI agent with cute rough edges. And Gabourey Sidibe, the striking plus-size Oscar-nominated star of Precious, makes her Hollywood leap as a feisty Jamaican chambermaid who gets in on the heist action. (The girl’s got mad safecracking skills.) I don’t know why Ratner and cinematographer Dante Spinotti felt compelled to push the camera in close, as if gawking at Sidibe’s dramatic coloring and size. But then, I also don’t know why she wasn’t used more: Murphy never looks more alive and excited by a fellow actor — challenged to peak performance — than during ribald, flirtatious banter with Sidibe’s self-possessed working girl. She’s something new; Murphy in Tower Heist is something rebooted. Together they build something with more visual interest than any Trump Tower on any tourist map. C+

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