Tower Heist

Posted by Michael Parsons on November 5, 2011 in / No Comments


(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.

79627_galThe 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.

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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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