Tower Heist (2011): Brett Ratner’s Action Comedy, Starring Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller

Brett Ratner is an unabashedly commercial filmmaker, with no pretensions to creating cinematic art–or thematic depth.  He tends to make rather shallow, accessible, shamelessly entertaining movies, which usually have mass appeal.

You may recall New Line’s successful franchise “Rush Hour” and Fox’s “X-Men: The Last Stand,” which always moved fast and occasionally boasted exuberant stylistic flourishes; they were the kind of movies you feel bad about enjoying.

Artistically, Ratner’s most fully realized feature to date is “Red Dragon,” with Anthony Hopkins reprising his role from “The Silence of the Lamb.”  But that’s the exception to the rule.

And now comes the haphazardly plotted action comedy “Tower Heist” whose best asset is its strong ensemble, headed by comedians Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, who benefit from strong rapport–despite their varying acting styles.

Many industry members will be following closely the opening weekend of “Tower Heist,” just to see the degree of bankability (and popularity) of Eddie Murphy, who is the host of the next Oscar show, in February 2012, a kudocast produced by director Brett Ratner.

Released by Universal Novdmber 4, “Tower Heist” should score at the domestic box-office.  For one thing, there is not much competition in the marketplace, and for another, it’s been a decade or so since we have see a well-mounted comic caper made by a major Hollywood studio

“Tower Heist” is grounded in a timely idea that reflects the zeitgeist, but the narrative is utterly unrealistic, it’s “movieish” to a fault.  The socio-economic context is just a camouflage for a reliable sampler of a Hollywood genre that was very popular in the 1970s.

Let me be more specific.  The tale’s socio economic context is relevant, but it’s just used as premise: A staff of blue-collar (working class) employees seeks revenge on a Wall Street swindler, a Bernie Madoff type, who had stiffed them.

It takes the crew members at the luxury Central Park condominium The Tower (standing in for Trump Tower at Columbus Circle) some time to discover that the billionaire who resides in the penthouse of the lush building might have stolen their retirement.  To that extent, they form a group, composed of eccentric characters (this is a comedy after all) whose task is vengeance.

Seeking “justice” by taking the law into their own hands, they plot what they perceive to be the ultimate revenge, a heist that would reclaim what was unfairly taken from them.  That the heist takes place during Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade Day only shows how far-fetched–and fantastical–the plot is.

Ben Stiller is well cast as Queens native son Josh Kovaks, a manager of one of the most luxurious and best-secured residences in New York City for more than a decade. Under the watchful eye of Kovaks, a seemingly pro who claims to be in full control, every minor detail is detected and inspected.

Upstairs, Downstairs: In the lush unit at the building’s top floor Wall Street titan Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) is under house arrest after being caught stealing $2 billion from his investors.  Among the many individuals he has defrauded are the Tower staffers whose pensions he was entrusted to manage.

The clock ticks and suspense builds up steadily.  Shaw believes that it’s only a matter of a few days before he can get away with what the late and great Hitchcock described as the “perfect crime, evident in many of his movies, such as “Rope” or “Dial M. for Murder.”

The crew believes that the money is hidden in the heavily guarded condo where Shaw is being held by an FBI team led by Special Agent Claire Denham (Tea Leoni).  Soon, however, the members realize that they are not capable or skillful enough to execute effectively their scheme of stealing the $20 million.  And so, they decide to recruit Slide (well played by Eddie Murphy), a petty crook, who’s surprised by the amateurishness of the rookie thieves.

What makes the picture, which is more effective as caper comedy than as thriller-actioner, work is not its plot, which is utterly implausible, but the socio-psychological dynamics that prevail among the group members, who think they know the building inside out– better than anyone else.

Gradually, we get to know the colorful composition of the group. There’s the high-strung concierge Charlie (Casey Affleck), the broke ex-Wall Streeter Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), the rookie bellhop Dev’Reaux (Michael Pena), and the feisty maid Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe, who has some of the picture’s best lines).

Murphy, who also gets credit as producer, pitched the film’s idea to Brian Grazer and Ratner as early as 2005, and reportedly, there have been various incarnations of the narrative; the development process of the yarn was lengthy even by Hollywood standards.

The workable, only sporadically witty screenplay, credited to Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson, is based on a story penned by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, and Ted Griffin.  Ted Griffin is the scribe of “Ocean’s Eleven,” hence the thematic similarities, and Jeff Nathanson of Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can,” which co-starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks.

In explaining the tone of “Tower Heist,” Ratner has said: “Ted Griffin brought the real motivation and the heart to the concept, and then when Jeff Nathanson came on, he added the obstacles, complexities and specificities of the characters.”

The cast consists of comedians playing men down on their luck: “Tower Heist” would have been a totally different picture if its thespians were dramatic actors–or glamorous stars a la Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” trilogy.  Moreover, the characters are not your typical Hollywood cool or slick pros. The chief idea of the text was to follow a group of disgruntled employees in a building like the Trump Tower who seize their chance to carry out a nearly impossible robbery.  Naturally, watching these comedians, you immediately expect that everything that could possibly go wrong with the plans does go wrong.

For this picture, Ratner surrounded himself with a largely new crew: The brilliant Italian cinematographer Dante Spinoti, who gives the film a glossy look, editor Mark Helfrich, who makes sure the tempo is right and fast, production designer Kristi Zea, costume designer Sarah Edwards, and composer Christope Beck.

Ratner is good with his high-profile cast, though I doubt that Stiller, Murphy, and Alda needed much guidance from him.  Murphy, who dominates the second half of the picture, renders a joyous performance that recalls his witty, charming, streetwise roles of the 1980s, when he was Hollywood’s biggest star, films like “48 Hours” and “Beverly Hills Cop.”

Alda, who was bland and “too nice” as a leading man, continues to excel in supporting (and usually villainous) roles; he can now nail a part in two scenes or so. And Ratner grants him a great introduction in the film’s visually dazzling opening shot.

As the “straight” man, Stiller is proficient, though I wish the writers gave him better lines and a more substantial part; there are not many actors around who are so good in playing “losers” in what could be described as “comedy of humiliation and self-deprecation.”

Broderick and Gabourey Sidibe (Oscar nominee for “Precious”) have their share of good moments.

The weaker performances are by Casey Affleck and Michael Pena, largely due to the fact that their roles are underwritten.

A competent craftsman, Ratner is not a major director, but his string of box-office hits has given him some power in Hollywood, which he uses well.  Aware of his strengths and limitations as a filmmaker, he chooses unpretentious, mass-oriented material that suits his talents.

This review was written by Mark Nichols and Emanuel Levy