Stealing laughs: Safecracking, joke cracking from Murphy, Stiller in ‘Tower Heist’
Isn’t the universe amazing? The same week that Ruth Madoff swears to Morley Safer that her family knew nothing about Bernie Madoff’s $65 billion fraud, in the same season that Americans are camped out in protest of economic inequality, comes a movie about luxury-apartment-building staffers who plot to steal back the lost pensions they invested with a very Madoffy man. During the Macy’s parade. It’s conceivable that Mrs. Madoff and the Occupy Wall Street people are having planning meetings with Universal Pictures. But I’m a cosmos guy, so I’ll go with that.
“Tower Heist’’ is smoothly made and smart enough. It’s not going for too much, but I laughed a lot, despite knowing better, which was more or less any time Eddie Murphy says anything to Ben Stiller. Stiller puts on an ethnic New York voice to play the building manager of a busy, Trumpy Columbus Circle high-rise, who leads the charge to break into the apartment of a Wall Street billionaire (Alan Alda) under FBI house arrest for stealing millions from investors. Stiller, of course, knows nothing about breaking and entering but bails out the loudmouth, do-ragged crook (Murphy) he passes every day on his way into Manhattan from Queens and asks him to help him and his accomplices - Matthew Broderick, Michael Peña, and Casey Affleck - pull this off. The Thanksgivingness of things isn’t lost on Murphy, who’s back doing jive turkey. It’s really a sketch of his Buddy Love concoction from the “Nutty Professor’’ movies crossed with Murphy’s brother Charlie. Everything he says is tired, but confidence and gusto count for a lot in a movie like this, and that’s Murphy here: scene after scene of jive gusto.
Like some elevator rides, every Registry of Motor Vehicles office, and most disaster movies from the 1970s, “Tower Heist’’ traps these unlikely people together and hopes for the best. “The best’’ is a ways off. In the meantime there’s this, a comedy that surrounds Stiller and Murphy with actors as funny as they are. In a few scenes, including one in which Stiller introduces Murphy to the gang and another where Murphy has them all do some practice shoplifting, their assorted types are funny together. Broderick is playing another of his pathetic losers, a penniless banker who’s squatting in the Tower, and it looks for a minute like Téa Leoni, as an agreeable yet testy FBI agent flirting with Stiller, might run off with the movie. She runs off with her pittance of scenes instead. You feel worse for Judd Hirsch, who plays Stiller’s boss and spends most of the movie locked in a closet. Did he lose a coin toss with Alda?
The script, which is credited to Jeff Nathanson and Ted Griffin, simply reworks what must be drafts of their respective previous movies and television projects - a couple of “Rush Hour’’ movies, one of those “Ocean’s’’ capers, F/X’s “The Shield.’’ What they’ve written is both full of foolishness and rather foolproof. All the director Brett Ratner has to do is obey the numbers in the coloring book, which by and large he does. Too often he’s beat up on for being a hack. Hacks don’t learn from their shortcomings. Ratner’s learning to be less ambitious. All he’s doing here is looking over the shoulders of the smarter kids at the desks in front of him - Sidney Lumet and Steven Soderbergh. But at least it ensures the answers will be right.
Of course what was great about Lumet (places, faces, cases) is not what’s great about Soderbergh (precision, precision, precision). “Tower Heist’’ feels like a New York that Lumet in the 1980s would recognize, especially the mugs and accents of the tower staff. Dante Spinotti’s cinematography gives the film some of its Soderbergh polish. The other day a friend pointed out that Ratner is actually just the Richard Donner of right now, a not-bad Hollywood director who fares worse when stood alongside his peers. “Tower Heist’’ is a Lumet movie that has too much aspirational Soderbergh. It becomes more interested in the procedure of the caper itself.
In an “Ocean’s’’ movie that’s fine - the ludicrous innovations of movie-heist mechanics are what you pay to see. In “Tower Heist,’’ here’s all I thought as a vintage Ferrari dangles from the tower or as Gabourey Sidibe, playing a safecracking Jamaican maid, dirty-talks to Murphy: What about Lester?
Lester (Stephen Henderson) is the freshly retired doorman who’s so down in the dumps about losing everything he invested that he feels like he can’t go on. He does, but you don’t forget the spring in his step on his last day then the blues in his voice when his retirement turns out to be a mirage (“29 years of opening doors’’). I imagine Ruth Madoff would have an impossible time selling her side of the story to dupes like him. Henderson is a veteran of August Wilson’s plays, and his emotional realism is almost too tender, so the movie forgets about him for a good long stretch. It’s the only way to keep the caper light and exciting. But Henderson, by then, has proven so infectious in the part that he’s already broken your heart in a way that bruises the movie. He gives it a soul it was never meant to have.