I'll admit, there was a part of me that thought the latest from director Brett Ratner might actually have something to it, even if that something was Eddie Murphy's somewhat return to comedic form. But saddled with a PG-13 rating (in a role that is screaming to be set free by an R), a producer credit, and surprisingly little screen time, Murphy is at best slightly funnier than we've seen him in many years. All we actually get is Murphy yelling a whole lot and acting tough in a story that treats his character as something served on the side, rather than the main course.
TOWER HEIST seems like a fairly timely endeavor. The staff of a luxury Manhattan apartment building is swindled by one of the building's residents, a Wall Street tycoon played by Alan Alda, who is arrested by the FBI and held under house arrest while he awaits a court date. Initially, it appears Alda is friendly with the staff, led by building manager Josh (Ben Stiller), but when their entire pension fund vanishes, the staff turns against Alda.
Josh, along with fellow staffers played by Casey Affleck, Michael Peña, and Gabourey Sidibe, decide to break into the heavily secured building and steal all the money from the safe Josh believes is hidden in Alda's apartment. Matthew Broderick is also on hand as a recently evicted tenant who also entrusted his money with Alda. The theft seems all the more likely considering the unit is guarded by FBI agents (headed by Tea Leoni). And thus is the set-up to this poor man's (literally) OCEAN'S ELEVEN, without the logic and only about a third of the fun.
According to the press notes I got on TOWER HEIST, it took eight people to write this movie (I'm not sure they all get screen credit); hell, even Stiller's GREENBERG writer-director Noah Baumbach got a crack at polishing this turd. The idea that it took that many people to concoct this movie boggles my mind almost as much as this ridiculous plot. Now I'm not saying that every film, especially heist films, that I see has to pass the logic test, but the good ones often do. For example, a great deal of the actual heist takes place hanging from window washer scaffolding outside the building during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which passes right by the apartments. Yet not a single person on the street seems to notice any of the goings-on along one side of the building. I don't want to ruin the few surprises this film has, but one element of this sequence would have been impossible not to see from the street.
There was a great opportunity here to tell a story from a perspective that is rarely told on the big screen—the inner workings of a high-end apartment building. There are a few introductory scenes in TOWER HEIST in which Stiller is dealing what is clearly just another day in the office, but it's still mildly interesting how he juggles the needs of the filthy rich residents. But once the planning of the crime begins, things become standard-issue junk. Granted, having the would-be thieves be people that are hard-working folks just trying to get what belongs to them is a great twist. But when Stiller gets desperate for a working plan, he turns to a known criminal type in his neighborhood, Slide (Murphy), who must be bailed out of prison for starters.
Murphy manages to get off a few good lines here and there, but his performance is largely just scene after scene of him insulting Stiller (apparently they went to grade school together) and overplaying a role that might have benefited from a tad more dialing back. Murphy should have kept an eye on what Peña does in this movie as the dopey new doorman at The Tower. Peña is a fantastic, versatile actor who effortlessly bounces from drama to comedy (check out his small but excellent work in THE LINCOLN LAWYER to see him do a little of both). But between this role and the gangster part he pulled off in 30 MINUTES OR LESS, he's having a great year in comedies.
A lot of what's wrong with TOWER HEIST might have been more easily forgiven if the heist itself was of any interest. There's something about it that's unique and original; I'll give it that. But man, do they drag out what is a borderline implausible theft and turn it into nothing. The filmmakers seem far more interested in the lame jokes than any fun we're supposed to get from the staff getting away with the impossible. And when the only thing you have to distract the security team at the building is a nudie magazine and the timing of the parade outside, you may be asking a bit too much from your audience to buy. It was certainly more than I was willing to accept.
Combine that with lackluster performances from the leads (although many of the supporting actors are funny), sideplots that go nowhere, and a lack of any interesting visual kick from Ratner, and what you're left with is a sad little movie trying to be an big-time action-comedy. Not this time, folks. Not even close. TOWER HEIST is a whole lot of people trying very hard to entertain and, for the most part, failing.