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Entries in Tower Heist [2011] (1)

Thursday
Nov102011

Tower Heist (2011)

Ocean's Chapter Eleven

My watchmaker friends have a saying: "Timing is everything".* It's the key to not only understanding the phenomenal number of problems in Brett Ratner's Tower Heist, but also the confluence of events that led me to see it when I did.

Last weekend, I chose (wisely) to see the new Harold & Kumar movie instead of the other big release. In fact, I'd intended to wait for Tower Heist on video, but the French film that my friends and I wanted to see yesterday was canceled due to a random, one-night-only stage performance. We ran in the polar opposite direction of the evening's planned artistic loftiness and opted for an action comedy instead.

We did this on the day after Ratner stepped down as producer for the 2012 Academy Awards telecast, following last week's completely innocent and out-of-context assertion** that "rehearsal's for fags". Heist co-star Eddie Murphy displayed admirable solidarity and questionable judgment by almost immediately quitting his Oscars-hosting gig. Then it was announced that rapper Heavy D passed away, mere hours before I saw his cameo in this film.

Sadly, these blinking, cosmic arrows are the only interesting part of Tower Heist, a nearly laugh-free comedy starring actors who should know better, performing material that itself qualifies as robbery (a moot point, 'cause suing a studio for two hours and eleven bucks is cost-prohibitive). I didn't expect the film to be good, but I didn't think it would be this bad.

Ben Stiller stars as Josh Kovacs, manager of New York's fictitious Tower hotel. He and his quirky staff tend to the every whim of the building's multi-millionaire residents. The biggest dog on the block, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) treats everyone well, until he's busted for running a Madoff-style Ponzi scheme (or, I guess, a Ponzi-style Ponzi scheme). Years earlier, Kovacs had invested his employees' pension funds with Shaw--funds that have been long since wiped out.

Desperate to recover their dignity and life savings, Kovacs enlists his crew and a trash-talking, felon neighbor named Slide (Murphy) to break into Shaw's apartment and steal his $20 million rainy-day fund out of a wall safe. Because I assume you've seen the trailer, as well as other heist comedies, there's no need to avoid what passes for spoilers in the minds of screenwriters Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson.

These colorful, nutty, not-quite-criminals pull of the job by relying less on precision timing and technical prowess than on coincidences, like people leaving doors open or an entire security team huddling around an issue of Spanish Playboy for half an hour instead of watching their monitors. They also count on spectators at the Thanksgiving Day Parade not noticing a 1966 Ferrari dangling from one of the city's most famous buildings--or the people dangling from the Ferrari.

Perhaps these quibbles are unfair. Tower Heist was never about the heist, but about bringing lots of actors together for much-needed career boosts. Murphy and Matthew Broderick give stardom another go, having squandered the good will they'd established with the brilliant 1999 comedies Bowfinger and Election, respectively. Murphy's Slide is the kind of thuggish, street-monster that men of his age and stature should be actively railing against in entertainment; on the flip-side of that coin, Broderick plays the ultra-white-bread, out-of-touch investment banker whose big comedic moment involves him holding a gun and calling Murphy "bitch" several times.

Gabourey Sidibe turns up as a Jamaican maid who seems quiet but (SPOILER!) is really a sexual beast with a violent streak. There's nothing funnier than a morbidly obese, screaming black lady ramming a supply cart into a seated FBI agent whose only crime was guarding a doorway--is there? In fairness, he did refuse to eat the slice of cake that she'd offered him--the one sprinkled with poison. How precious!

Most everyone is wasted here. Casey Affleck turns in a career-worst performance. Judd Hirsch and Téa Leoni "play" perpetually drunk and/or angry. Michael Peña's Enrique is a stereotype too old to believe and too dumb to live. And Stiller spends most of the film looking like he just wants to bust out of his ridiculous Nyew Yaw-uk accent and do something funny. Only Alda escapes with a fine performance under his belt, one that deserves to be grafted onto a much better picture.

What's most surprising about Tower Heist is that the filmmakers' pedigrees suggest it should have actually worked. The writers worked on Ocean's Eleven and Catch Me If You Can, and the director made the highly successful Rush Hour movies. But as collaborators, they are absolutely incapable of making action scenes exciting (save for the dangling-car scene, but I credit that to my own fear of heights and mild vertigo) or comedic scenes funny (their idea of a clever gut-buster is seeing Ferris Bueller clinging to a Ferrari for dear life, and reminding people that Murphy starred in Shrek by focusing on a particular parade balloon).

The problem is that none of the creators can filter out the juvenile, lowest-common-denominator nonsense that clutters up a pretty cool story. Tower Heist's timeliness is undeniable, and I didn't expect Stiller's character to wind up the way he does. But the film is so stagnant and humorless that I kept thinking back to Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's movies--a franchise I didn't really care for until the third entry, but which (mostly) played to the smartest people in the audience. Ratner and company have made a comedically bankrupt snoozer whose fans are likely people you wouldn't trust to hold the door for you.

*I don't know any watchmakers.

** I don't know anyone who believes this.