There are at least four robberies associated with this film, and only two of them appear in the screenplay. There is the embezzlement of billions by Arthur Shaw, a Bernie Madoff type played by Alan Alda. There is the revenge theft plotted by employees of the Manhattan luxury high-rise atop which Shaw resides, after they learn he pocketed the retirement savings they entrusted him with investing. If you’ve caught the trailer, you’ve already learned this much and seen most of the movie’s funniest moments.
Somewhere along the line, the buzz on Tower Heist became the promise of a vehicle for the long-awaited comeback of Eddie Murphy. Not the Eddie Murphy of family films and dopey, Latex-encased characters, but the edgy Eddie Murphy who was capable of making grown-ups laugh several administrations ago. If you’ve seen that trailer, believe it or not, you’ve also seen a shockingly large percentage of the screen time the actor was accorded. He’s barely there. Which brings us to rip-off No. 3:
Tower Heist was Murphy’s idea. I kid you not. What he envisioned was an all-black variation on the Ocean’s Eleven formula. The suits he pitched loved the concept — except the part about the stars being black. In the end, Universal agreed to make the picture, but with a multiethnic, mostly white cast, a legendarily lame director (Brett Ratner, whose principal contribution to American cinema has been limiting the number of Rush Hour comedies he helmed to three) and Murphy relegated to an underwritten bit part.
Ben Stiller is the movie’s star. He’s Josh, the professional suck-up who manages the Tower. The first half of this nearly two-hour-long credibility stretcher consists of a cavalierly paced introduction to its main characters. So we watch and wait as Josh fawns over the building’s residents, until we eventually meet Matthew Broderick’s Mr. Fitzhugh, a sad sack who’s been sacked by Merrill Lynch, lost his family and faces eviction. Casey Affleck is Charlie, a distracted concierge whose wife is expecting. Michael Peña’s a bellhop, Gabourey Sidibe’s a Jamaican maid and Stephen Henderson is the doorman who finds out he’s lost everything on what he thought was his last day of work.
Because Josh handed over his coworkers’ savings without consulting them, he feels duty bound to hatch a scheme to get the money back. It involves breaking into the billionaire’s penthouse. Politically Incorrect Plot Point Alert: Since he has zero experience in this area, Josh recruits Murphy’s character on the basis of his being black and having “been arrested a bunch of times.”
The climactic heist is a preposterous bit of logic-defying nonsense. Between the overlong setup and the silly finale, however, is a stretch of 15, maybe 20 minutes during which the unlikely crew prepares for the big day, and most of what passes for funny business can be found there.
The movie is most effective when Murphy is tutoring his mild-mannered gang in the ways of grand larceny. He doesn’t attain the sassy heights of his Axel Foley heyday, but he comes close enough to remind us what a force of nature he once could be. So we watch in utter bafflement as, again and again, Ratner rushes him off screen, robbing the actor of a chance to strut his stuff and the audience of a shot at getting its money’s worth. I guess, technically, that qualifies as five rip-offs.
Rarely have so many (the film has five writers) gone to so much trouble to produce so little in the way of honest-to-God film fun. In the age of Apatow, an old-fashioned caper comedy like Tower Heist might have proved an entertaining novelty. But that’s the thing about going old school: It only works if the filmmaker has learned from past mistakes.
And I’m not sure this represents a step up from anything we would have gotten from Rush Hour 4.