“Tower Heist” has a lot going for it. At its heart, it’s a comedy heist film where the audience roots for the wood-be thieves. The film manages to pull off a nice balance of clever character moments, funny dialogue and broad, physical comedy while an endearing, yet implausible plot plays out. The film is armed with an amazing cast, and while not the greatest heist story ever told, the bottom line is that “Tower Heist” is a lot of fun.
Ben Stiller stars as Josh Kovacs, the manager of one of the most luxurious and well-secured residential buildings in New York City known as The Tower. Residing in the penthouse suite is Wall Street titan Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) is who is under house arrest after allegedly swindling billions from his investors. Among the defrauded is the staff of The Tower who entrusted Shaw to manage their pensions. Josh (Stiller) assembles a crew of employees and a street thug named Slide (Eddie Murphy) for a planned heist to break into Shaw’s guarded penthouse and reclaim what was stolen from them.
Eddie Murphy delivers his funniest performance in over 20 years as the only non-amateur of the group, the amped-up street hustler, Slide. The role is a refreshing departure from Murphy’s seemingly exclusive engagements of family oriented comedies throughout the latter part of his career. Murphy is responsible for some of the biggest laughs in the film as he plays the criminal mentor to the amateur thieves. It’s wonderful to be able to genuinely laugh at an Eddie Murphy performance again.
Stiller also turns in a nice performance by playing against his usual role of the nervous and awkward boyfriend archetype that he’s done countless times. The character of Josh is a confident problem solver as well as a workaholic. He managers The Tower with detailed efficiency; focusing on the various ins and outs of the building and its pampered residents. When his staff’s pensions are lost at the hands of his wealthiest resident, Josh shifts that same managerial style to that of a master criminal.
Also among group of amateur thieves is Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), a Wall Streeter who has suffered his own financial hardships in having his quarters at The Tower foreclosed upon. Charlie (Casey Affleck) is Josh’s broke and not-so-savvy brother-in-law who works as The Tower’s concierge. Enrique (Michael Peña) is the bellhop and newest member of the staff and Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe) is the feisty Jamaican-born maid who works in The Tower while trying to secure her green card.
The standout of the supporting cast is Alan Alda who is pitch-perfect as Alan Shaw, the Wall Street swindler. Alda is immensely enjoyable to watch, even when he’s playing a reprehensible character such as this. Téa Leoni also turns in a nice performance as the tough FBI agent Claire Denham who’s responsible for Shaw’s house arrest as well as clueing in Josh (Stiller) on the details of Shaw’s fraudulent history.
It’s the characters that really make “Tower Heist” work. There are no generic templates as each character is interesting and unique. They have quirks, concerns and various things that motivate them. Josh (Stiller) and his gang are amateurs, so they ask the questions that a rookie thief would ask and often reference the absurd nature of what they’re attempting to pull off. The characters are grounded in reality, so the plot doesn’t always have to be.
High marks also have to be attributed to the screenplay, which was developed based on a story idea from Murphy. The screenplay was written by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson who get the tone just right by giving the story emotional weight in tying in social commentary that resonates within the film. The screenplay taps into the battered U.S. economy, whose financial meltdown occurred amidst charges of corporate mismanagement, record high unemployment and financiers defrauding their clients. Who among the newly disenfranchised wouldn’t want to exact a measure of revenge?
These built-in materials give the story some needed weight amidst all the comedy. The characters happen to find themselves in humorous scenarios, but they are injected with real humanity. That element of reality helps the funny character moments come about more naturally; the characters aren’t funny merely because they’re portrayed by well-known comedic actors. The script wisely plays to its strengths and isn’t weighed down by a forced romance or meaningless subplot.
Director Brett Ratner makes great use of the film’s setting of New York City. The film was shot in and around the city which gives the story and characters a bit of added personality. There are some great shots of New York City captured in the film and Ratner does a terrific job of managing the handful of on-location action sequences. There are more than a few ridiculous things that happen throughout the film, but Ratner does a nice job of grounding those scenes with character moments, all while still getting laughs.
“Tower Heist” is a well-timed film where the regular, working class attempts to exact payback from a greedy, Wall Street mogul. The funny and likeable cast isn’t just attempting to rob from the rich; they’re robbing from the corrupt rich. There is no guilt involved in rooting for them and wanting to see them win. There are a lot of laughs in “Tower Heist” on both small and large scales. Suspension of disbelief is mandatory, as the story has its share of absurd elements, but the film is so much fun that it hardly matters.