(This review was originally published on November 5, 2011 at The Rogers Revue)
It’s good to have Eddie Murphy back in the realm of comedy, and a relief to know that characters like Reggie Hammond and Billy Ray Valentine still have a place amongst the Norbits and Pluto Nashes that have weighed down his bag of personas over the last decade. Perhaps Murphy’s return as the street smart, fast talking hoodlum Slide in “Tower Heist” is a shout out to himself, revisiting those characters of his comedic heyday (if slightly diluted for its PG-13 rating) without diminishing the rest of the cast.
The film yields a few good things: director Brett Ratner at the top of his game (did anybody really like those “Rush Hour” movies?), a healthy looking (and very funny) Ben Stiller, whose last “Fockers” installment was nothing less than disheartening, and a queasy performance by Matthew Broderick as an ex-investment guy who’s lost everything; not to mention Gabourey Sidibe, who plays very much against the “Precious” type that made her famous in 2009.
But most of all, “Tower Heist” is a quick-witted piece of entertainment that strikes me as “The Italian Job” meets “Rat Race” with a smidgen of “Die Hard”(a mandatory reference with tall buildings) set in NYC. A screenplay by Ted Griffin (“Ocean’s Eleven”) and Jeff Nathanson (Ratner’s “Rush Hour” trilogy), the story translates into an intelligently paced comedy-caper that is inspired predominantly by the dialogue of a cohesive cast.
The story is simple enough: after losing their pensions to crooked billionaire Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a group of employees decide to rob the very Wall Street giant who resides in the ostentatious penthouse unit at The Tower where they work.
Stiller plays Tower manager Josh Kovacs, a detail-oriented Queens native who displays the diligence of Amy Vanderbilt and the multi-tasking efficiency of an air-traffic controller. This is no ordinary condominium building, as Josh explains to probationary bellhop Enrique Dev’Reaux (Michael Peña), and theirs is a skill-set that justifies the exorbitant amount ($5 million plus) that residents are willing to pay to call this building home; the most expensive real estate in the country. Josh knows everything about his elitist clients including Shaw, with whom his protegé/mentor relationship might lead to bigger things in the future.
And Josh genuinely believes in this man’s integrity, as he opens Shaw’s car doors and plays online chess with him every morning. “Sacrifice the queen,” he learns from the personable billionaire. Alda’s normally amicable demeanor is the initial face of Shaw, who purports himself to be just an Astoria boy like Josh – an apparent everyman who happens to be obscenely wealthy.
Until, that is, Shaw’s fraudulent investment practices catch up to him in a Madoff-like scandal. Shaw is taken into custody by the FBI in an operation led by Agent Claire Denham (Tea Leoni) and he is eventually remanded to house arrest in his own palatial flat.
Josh divulges to his employees that, years prior, he had entrusted their retirement plans to the now-penniless investor, and it becomes evident that their livelihoods are at the low end of the totem pole behind the banks and various other entities. And things get worse after an accident involving their beloved doorman of many years Lester (Stephen Henderson) leaves him hospitalized.
Upon learning of a $20 million safety net that Shaw has hidden from Federal view, Josh rallies a group of equally disgruntled and desperate folks to go after it: the broke, rebellious man squatting in his own foreclosed condo in the Tower (Broderick); Enrique the ever-optimistic bellhop (Peña) and Josh’s brother-in-law Charlie (Casey Affleck) whose wife is due to have their child at any time. Certain that it is stashed in the penthouse, Josh feels solely responsible for making things right. The trick is – how do they get the money out while Shaw is at home under 24 hour FBI surveillance?
Along with Slide, Murphy’s comically shady character who’s been a neighbor of Josh’s in Queens since they were kids, they begin the scheming, not long before recruiting the tenacious Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe) for her lock-picking skills. Just slick enough (and noticeably missing Murphy’s trademark laugh), Slide gives them a few lessons on how to become thieves.
Just where many formulas would go south, Ratner sticks to a science that keeps “Tower Heist” well above expectations, avoiding the complacency found by many directors who’ve worked with multi-character scripts tailored to such a bankable cast. Stiller finds his ground between cynicism, determination and pride, resulting in an organic humor that tempers some of the slapstick and genital references (most of them are out of the way in the first ten minutes). Paired with Murphy in his classic form, the film makes for a solid flick that delivers on the strengths of its cast.