By Niall McArdle
‘I don’t remember an episode of Matlock where the criminals banged Matlock.’
Once you’ve seen one heist film, you’ve pretty much seen them all, and after the massive success of the Ocean’s films, how do you make a heist film stand out? And how do you make a New York heist film without the audience thinking of The Anderson Tapes or The Taking of Pelham One Two Three? That was the challenge facing Brett Ratner and his team with Tower Heist.
Luckily for them, the economy collapsed and Bernie Madoff went to jail, because they ended up making a comedy heist film that isn’t really about a group of numbskulls stealing a lot of money. It’s about the 99% getting its revenge on the 1%. It’s not quite as satisfying as it should be, nor is it quite as funny as I hoped, but it is an entertaining and energetic comedy with a talented cast and a good few memorable lines. It may be also the only film in movie history that makes reference to Inch High, Private Eye.
Ben Stiller is the manager of The Tower, a Manhattan skyscraper where the very wealthy live. Stiller is a mixture of efficient, loyal concierge and perfect babysitter, and he and his colleagues (Casey Affleck, Michael Pena, Judd Hirsch, Gabourey Sidibe, Stephen McKinley Henderson) cater to the spoiled residents’ every whim. At the very top of the building, in a luxurious penthouse with an amazing rooftop swimming pool, is Alan Alda, because it’s Alda, at first you think he’s a nice guy, the sort who likes to joke with the doorman and wants to remind you that before he was a bazillionaire he was just a working-class guy from Queens. It turns out, of course, that he’s a heartless villain. The FBI arrest him for Securities fraud; he has ripped off all of his clients, including Stiller & Co., whose pension fund he has emptied out.
The comedy in this film comes from character, not silly situation, and the film wisely spends a good half and hour introducing us to the characters, so that the audience is really geared up to sympathise with the working stiffs when it comes time to steal from Alda. The well-chosen ensemble cast includes Eddie Murphy as the only actual crook in the film, Matthew Broderick as a mild-mannered, recently evicted tenant, and Tea Leoni as the FBI agent who is sweet on Stiller.
Leoni and Stiller get drunk in a bar. In real life, there is nothing less attractive than someone who can’t hold their drink, so Leoni surely deserves some sort of acting award for managing to be a very sloppy but still sexy drunk. Movie trivia note: they filmed the scene in the same bar where Joe Pesci kicked the shit out of Frank “go get your shinebox” Vincent in Goodfellas.
It’s close to forty-five minutes before Eddie Murphy shows up (his role is basically his character from Trading Places with some miles on him), but he infuses the film with some much-needed energy, as he trains others how to steal. The heist itself is well put together; the film goes through most of the expected cliches of the genre (decoys, safe-cracking, bumbling cops, bumbling criminals), and although the interiors were shot mostly on a set against a green screen, there is a definite sense that the film exists in New York. The city (with its Thanksgiving Parade) is a character in the film.
Everyone comes off pretty well in this. Stiller reins in his usual snarky neurotic shtick. Murphy hasn’t been this funny in years. (It’s a shame that he pulled out of hosting the Oscars that year: an inspired and on-fire Murphy at the Oscars is something we can only ever hope for.) Broderick looks as if he’s playing a version of himself. Affleck shows a surprising flair for comedy. Sibide has the film’s most memorable scene (showing Murphy how to crack a safe; she improvised her lines.)
This sort of comedy action is what Ratner generally does very well, and it’s worth noting that at one point he was going to direct Ocean’s Eleven. It’s not The Anderson Tapes or The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, but it’s a fun additon to the genre and an homage to the1970s (it has a score that’s deliberately reminiscent of 1970s heist flicks and one scene that’s a nod to The French Connection.)
The only false note comes at the end when
– SPOILER! –
Alda’s character goes to prison: guys like Bernie Madoff and Michael Milken and Conrad Black unfortunately don’t end up in frightening, maximum security penitentiaries.
The DVD includes commentary, gag reel, deleted scenes and making-of featurette.
Verdict: Three Gauntlets of Lesbians out of Five.
- Feud Between Arsenio Hall & Eddie Murphy? (webpronews.com)
- Ben Stiller on Hollywood’s Long Journey With ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ (variety.com)