It’s easy to forget that last year was supposed to be the start of a big comeback for Eddie Murphy. He looked to be back to his off-the-wall, madcap self in trailers for Brett Ratner’s Tower Heist, he was slated to host the Oscars with Ratner producing and there were even whispers about a return to stand-up comedy. Well, the stand-up never materialized, and after some inappropriate comments got Ratner kicked off the Academy Awards, Murphy followed him out the door. So that leaves Tower Heist, which, in fact, features a zanily enjoyable Murphy performance. The film’s only problem? Everything else. Imagine Ocean’s 11 without the brains, the smoothness or the laughs – oh, and split it in half. Now you have Tower Heist, essentially Ocean’s 5.5. If only the film was half as good.
Tower Heist starts promisingly enough – with an aerial shot of a $100 bill that’s revealed to be the giant floor of a swimming pool on the ceiling of our aforementioned Tower. The Tower, a luxury apartment complex, houses Wall Street millionaire Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda, wonderfully sly), who owns the top-floor penthouse and the giant Ben Franklin pool. Shaw is close with building manager Josh Kovaks (Ben Stiller), who runs the day-to-day operations of the building, along with a colorful staff including concierge Charlie (Casey Affleck), elevator operator Enrique (Michael Peña) and maid Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe). (By the way, Casey, you were in Ocean’s 11! You should know better!) Things are going rather swimmingly at The Tower until one day, Shaw is apprehended by the FBI for trying to escape. It turns out he’s been running a Ponzi scheme, and he’s placed under house arrest in his penthouse. And oh, by the way, Josh gave Shaw every employee’s pension fund, and now those are all gone. Oops.
And that’s how we get to the heist, which involves Josh, the aforementioned three employees and building tenant Mr. Fitzhugh (hey, look, it’s Matthew Broderick!). Of course, none of those folks are criminals, so Josh decides they need to find one. That’s where Slide, played by Murphy comes in, to teach this crew the ways of the criminal underworld. Slide, of course, is woefully unqualified for the task of criminal sensei, but he relishes the opportunity to steal the group’s money. (Murphy gets one of the film’s few laughs when he gives the group bobby pins while they’re standing on a roof on a snowy, freezing day and tells them they can get inside when one of them picks the lock to the rooftop door. “I’ll be inside having sex with Rita”, he says and walks away, to which Fitzhugh replies “who’s Rita?”)
But while Murphy elevates the proceedings a bit, there’s only so much he can do with a rotten script. The screenplay, credited to Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson, has approximately one intelligent idea – the $100 bill-themed swimming pool on the roof. Other than that, Tower Heist goes for broad strokes of comedy and consistently fails to drum up any sort of a surprise. The heist itself is confusing and ridiculous, and the conclusion is largely unsatisfying. This isn’t the fault of a talented group of actors – though Stiller plays a rather dull lead – but it’s a script that goes nowhere with a director in Ratner who has a low ceiling.
Tower Heist is not a smart movie, and it’s certainly not targeted at smart people. Just listen to the use of musical keys – every time Christophe Beck’s score drops out for a second, it’s used as a comedic beat. You’ll notice this in an early conversation between Stiller and Peña’s characters. It’s as if Ratner expects the audience to react as trained Pavlovian dogs. Let us decide for ourselves if a scene is funny or not, please – is that too much to ask?
Sure, not every film’s going to be intellectually stimulating, and a heist comedy starring Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy isn’t the place to start if that’s what you’re looking for. But I’m not entirely sure what to recommend here. It’s a comedy that’s not funny. It’s a heist movie that doesn’t have a good heist. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, the play’s quite lovely.