In Hollywood parlance, “A poor man’s [fill in the blank]” is a term used to refer to a lesser version of an established brand noun. For example, without meaning disrespect, for years Joan Collins had the distinction of being “the poor man’s” Elizabeth Taylor or (initially) the television series “Airwolf” being the “poor man’s” “Blue Thunder” in the 1980s. Upon the death of actor/comedian Bernie Mac, George Clooney was reported to have said that the Ocean series of films were done as he couldn’t see them being made with the late actor. As that series of films were the most successful of the heist genre, it stands to reason a major void is left…one that “Tower Heist” attempts to fill though as a low rent (ironic given the story setting) version.
Instead of Clooney’s charismatically charming Danny Ocean, we have nebbish everyman Ben Stiller as Josh Kovacs, the general manager of “The Tower”, a high rise condominium for the super wealthy of New York, who makes the mistake of investing the pensions of his employees with Wall Street stock broker and the owner of The Tower’s penthouse Arthur Shaw (played with smarmy charm by Alan Alda), who loses it all in a Ponzi scheme. However, through the auspices of FBI agent Claire Denham (Tea Leoni), Kovacs comes to find out that Shaw is in possession of $20 million in the penthouse and, with the help of disgraced Wall Street Broker Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), Charlie Gibbs, bumbling concierge and Kovac’s brother-in-law (Casey Affleck), newly hired bellhop Enrique Dev’reaux (Michael Pena) and sassy Odessa (Gabourey Sibide), they enlist the aid of petty thief Slide (Eddie Murphy, who also served as on of the film’s producers) for a little larcenous payback.
Unfortunately, if the plot contained any more holes than it already has, the film would fall under its own weight. But such things are par for the course for director Brett Ratner, he of the Rush Hour series of films, where the laws of physics and geometry (not to mention common sense and credulity) are continually violated; increasing in both transgression and enormity as the film goes along. However, Ratner’s strengths lie in story progression, visuals and performances, and the movie moves forward with aplomb. Even the quiet, somber moments (one in particular involving Lester the doorman (Stephen Henderson), who epitomizes the fears of those about to enter into retirement) hold your interest and propel the events forward. The Tower (which is “Trump Tower” in New York) is filled with gaudy ostentation, a world wherein the “hired help”, despite working within its confines, are outsiders. The film makes good use of juxtaposition between the “haves” and “have nots”, tapping into the collective rage epitomized by the current “Occupy” movement to justify the larceny the protagonists engage in. All the best entries of the heist genre have the audience rooting for the protagonists, and in this case “Tower Heist” succeeds.
To be honest, Ben Stiller has not been among my favorite performers; his ersatz “lovable/nerd loser/impotent rage” shtick having long since worn out its welcome. However, Stiller has matured and branched out of that acting safety net in recent years. While Kovacs still maintains a bit of the trademark Stiller “schlub” quality (it is more implied than anything else), Stiller infuses Kovacs with a restrained manic capability who is hardly impotent. The would be thieves liken themselves to Robin Hood, but in truth Kovacs is a knight who willingly does whatever it takes to right an enormous wrong; and how far he’ll go is surprising by film’s end. He may not have Danny Ocean’s scoundrel aplomb, but both characters share a sense of righteous indignation and, more here than in any other film he’s done previously, Stiller earnestly delivers the goods.
Casey Affleck brings “Ocean’s Eleven” street cred but few laughs in his role as the substandard but earnest employee trying to hold on to tenuous employment, but he does crystallize the fears many working Americans have in this current economic client. Michael Pena channels his inner John Leguizamo in his role as the bellhop. Tea Leoni does a fine job in her role as FBI agent Denham who develops a grudging respect and attraction for Kovacs. Unfortunately, that role is criminally underused. Her arc comes to a certain point, then abruptly stops as though the screenwriters didn’t know what to do with her once the main story had run its course. There was a lot that could have been done here and the proverbial ball was dropped. It’s a shame, because Leoni and Stiller had a nice chemistry that could have been developed further and still led to a nice payoff despite how the film concludes. Anyone born in the 80s might have trouble believing this, but Alan Alda was once considered to be one of the top sex symbols of the 1970s, and this film shows a faint glimmer as to why. His Arthur Shaw is a charismatic robber baron, oozing an easy avuncular, ingratiating charm that snares even in the face of irrefutable guilt. The film opens with an online chess game between Kovacs and Shaw (implying a greater relationship between the two outside the realm of The Tower) and the film becomes a game of strategic oneupemanship. Stiller and Alda have an easygoing chemistry with each other that implies years of thin camaraderie. When the extent of Shaw’s malfeasance becomes clear, the betrayal Kovacs feels is palpably felt…an effect that couldn’t be made without said chemistry. Shaw is the worst type of villain: the banal everyman. It’s apt that Mr. Fitzhugh is never given a first name, as Matthew Broderick simply transplants his version of “The Producers'” Leo Bloom onto this character, however Broderick does not phone in the performance herein, minimizing the comparison between the two characters.
However, two performances carry this film, elevating it beyond the mediocre. As Odessa, the safe cracking Jamaican maid desparately in need of a work visa, Sibide brings a welcome female empowering sauciness, in some respects being even more self-possessed and capable than the men. However, this film is Eddie Murphy’s forum; the declaration of his manifesto heralding the return to the angry edginess that catapulted him to superstardom in the 80s. “Slide” is more an angrier Reggie Hammond than he is Axel Foley, and at particular moments in the film disturbingly so. But moments of the nicer, affable Murphy show, most specifically in the totally improvised safe cracking scene he shares with Sibide and a meeting with the building manager (played by the ever-reliable Judd Hirsch in what amounts to an extended cameo), and its the saving grace for this character. Whether Murphy will sustain his mission statement beyond this film is neither here nor there. He brings the biggest laughs in the film, and when he is absent the energy is decidedly muted. However, this hodgepodge of dramatic and comedic talent work in the film’s favor. They are so engaging that they distract from the aforementioned plot holes and contrivances.
“Tower Heist” is not the best representation of its genre, and logic is not its strong suit, but it’s timely, highly enjoyable and imaginatively stretches a premise without going overboard. At the end of the day, I didn’t feel as though the money had been stolen from my wallet.