Click on the audio player below to listen to Slate's Spoiler Special podcast on Brett Ratner’s Tower Heist after you've seen the movie.
The most that can be said for Tower Heist (Universal), the new action comedy from Brett Ratner, is that it’s a middlingly well-done evocation of the big-budget caper you remember with vague fondness from long-ago matinees at the mall. It's a mass-produced diversion to be enjoyed between a Chick-Fil-A sandwich and a visit to Spencer Gifts to caress the fiber-optic lamp. It’s no Rush Hour, but then neither was Rush Hour 2 or Rush Hour 3. Even at its late-’90s apogee, Ratner’s work was hardly a summit of the cinematic craft. But if the idea of Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller teaming up to steal $20 million from Alan Alda lights up any part of your movie hindbrain (as, I confess, it sort of does mine), you probably won’t flee the theater during Tower Heist. (Does that count as a “fresh” or a “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes?)
Ratner may be consciously paying homage to the kind of movies he used to make, or he just may not know how to make any other kind. Either way, Tower Heist feels retro in pacing and scale. It runs a refreshingly unbloated 104 minutes, and the action scenes are less frequent and less destructive than we’re used to in our late-Michael Bay era. Not that this movie skimps on the spectacular stunts—one pivotal scene involves a Ferrari being lowered from a skyscraper window by a winch while a man dangles from the front fender—but in comparison with, say, the last Fast Five movie, this is a miniaturist character study.
Tower Heist does have one plot element that ties it not only to the present day, but to current events. By making Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), the victim of the titular heist, a Bernie Madoff-like shyster, the film gives its conventional gang-who-couldn’t-shoot-straight story a cathartic populist charge. As social commentary goes, this may be pretty toothless, but who doesn’t need a Madoff voodoo doll to abuse?
Alda’s Shaw owns the penthouse apartment in a hyperexclusive Manhattan building called “The Tower” (played, at least in some exterior shots, by Trump Tower). It’s clear to the audience from the first shot—Shaw does laps in his own private rooftop swimming pool, painted to look like a $100 bill—that this man is a contemptible snake, but to the staff at the Tower, headed up by general manager Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller), Shaw has always been a favorite resident: friendly, generous, and relatively undemanding. When Shaw is arrested on charges of securities fraud, Josh’s first instinct is to believe in his claims of innocence, even to defend him to the Tower staff. But when Josh learns that Shaw has gambled away the employees’ retirement fund in a Ponzi scheme, he commits an unwise act that gets him fired from the Tower, along with his concierge brother-in-law (Casey Affleck) and an affable but dimwitted elevator operator (Michael Peña). Together with a laid-off Wall Streeter who’s been evicted from the building (Matthew Broderick), they scheme to steal Shaw’s secret $20 million stash, which, according to the FBI agent assigned to the case (Téa Leoni), may be somewhere inside his apartment.
But these three law-abiding white guys—well, two white guys and one self-proclaimed “Puerto Rican Mohican”—don’t know the first thing about robbery, so they decide to bring Josh’s neighbor, a small-time criminal called Slide (Eddie Murphy), in on their plans. In the movie’s funniest scenes, Slide attempts to tutor the bumbling conspirators, while the detail-oriented Josh builds Lego scale models of the Tower’s lobby to map out his sub-Ocean’s 11 infiltration scheme. Eventually this crew is joined by Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe), a Jamaican housekeeper at the hotel who’s a whiz at safecracking (and double-entendre wisecracking).
The combined efforts of this fine ensemble cast make Tower Heist go down easier than it otherwise might, but the film’s potential as a buddy comedy is sadly wasted. Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy strike plenty of sparks off one another—Stiller is a master at communicating stifled resentment, and Murphy, in fine fettle, can get laughs with the tilt of an eyebrow—but the arcs of both characters, as well as the arc of their relationship, remain half-drawn. Stiller’s Josh goes ballistic way too early in the film, and after his big meltdown scene in the crooked banker’s apartment, the character has no room left to grow. Murphy’s Slide never quite comes into focus in the screenplay by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson—is he an amoral double-crosser, or does he come to identify with Stiller’s Robin Hood mission? Without giving too much away about the ending, I can say that Slide disappears much too abruptly from the story—unless I blinked and missed it, he’s entirely absent from the epilogue montage.
It’s probably a loser’s game to ask for better craftsmanship from a movie like Tower Heist, but even crowd-pleasing big-budget comedies would seem to owe both of their top-billed actors a final scene. And giving Murphy and Stiller one last emotional beat together—whether it was a warm buddy-buddy moment or an uneasy truce—would also have allowed Ratner to explore some of the race and class issues his movie only begins to touch on. In one of the movie’s best lines, the black maid Odessa, told that her retirement savings have been lost in a risky investment scheme, icily tells her white boss, “For the record, I never asked anyone to triple my portfolio.” But when the two of them join forces to rob the really bad guy on the top floor, all labor-vs.-capital conflict is forgotten. Similarly, Tower Heist offers its viewers a matinee-length dose of enjoyable catharsis, as long as they don’t ask too many questions.
Correction, Nov. 6 2011: The caption to the image accompanying this article originally misspelled the surnames of Casey Affleck and Eddie Murphy.