There are two major components to a good heist flick: 1) That the heist itself is cool, that it involves a little trickery, some prestidigitation, some cinematic sleight of hand that the audiences doesn’t see coming, and 2) that the climax is satisfying. Tower Heist manages one of those feats, which makes it an OK but unexceptional caper, and given the expectations of a movie directed by Brett Ratner and starring two 80’s has-beens and one 90’s hanger on, that has to be considered a partial win.
Tower Heist is a project that’s been floating around for years, trading hands, going through rewrites, and attaching to several different sets of cast members. Originally titled Trump Heist, the movie was conceived as an urban Ocean’s 11 film with Eddie Murphy, Chris Tucker, Dave Chappelle, and Chris Rock in mind as high-rise employees who steal from the wealthy tenants (a more interesting idea than the ultimate film). I’m not sure what led the producers to recontextualize Tower Heist (Noah Baumbach [The Squid and the Whale] and Rawson Thurber [Dodgeball] are two of the many hands that have taken a stab at the script) but eventually, Ben Stiller came aboard and Murphy circled back around to the role of the thief, an opportunity to resurrect the Eddie Murphy of old.
Take Bowfinger and Dreamgirls out of the equation, and it’s been more than 20 years since Murphy made an “Eddie Murphy” film, and the best thing that can be said about Tower Heist is that it does present that Murphy of old. It’s a great Eddie Murphy performance; unfortunately, he’s not given much with which to work. It’s the old-model Eddie, but there’s no gas in the tank. That’s really the problem with the movie as a whole: It’s not unfunny, but it’s not funny, either. It’s not poorly written, it’s simply generic. It has the shell of a good film, but it lacks the barest of inspiration.
In all likelihood, Tower Heist received the greenlight in the wake of the Bernie Madoff scandal, but fortuitously — like last week’s In Time — Tower Heist also resonates with the current 99% movement: Alan Alda plays Arthur Shaw, a wealthy and crooked investment banker who loses the staff’s pension fund at the high-rise apartment complex in which he lives. The building manager (Ben Stiller), the concierge (Casey Affleck), the elevator operator (Michael Pena), a maid (Gabourey Sidibe) and an evicted tenant (Matthew Broderick) decide to rob Shaw, who is on house arrest pending his trial. Because they don’t have any expertise in robbery, they enroll the services of Slide (Eddie Murphy), a thief from the neighborhood. Tea Leoni — in proto late-career Carrie Fisher mode — plays a FBI agent who is sympathetic to the plight of the high-rise employees, but not so sympathetic that she’d allow them to get away with robbing Shaw.
The first hour of Tower Heist spins its wheels setting up what turns out not to be so much an elaborate heist as one that runs into a number of semi-amusing complications, but even the execution of the heist is flat save for what is indisputably crowd-pleasing finale. Ben Stiller is in straight-man mode, sans the self-abuse, and — like the rest of the cast, except for the laughable Jamaican accent of Sidibe — is serviceable but unremarkable (and thankfully, never annoying).
That’s a fairly apt way to describe Tower Heist as a whole. Ratner is a handsomely paid hired hack, and while he does take the last train to Doucheletville every night, he’s competent when it comes to light action comedy like this or Rush Hour. Still, he’s not capable of bringing anything to this caper beyond what’s written on the page. The script from Ted Griffin (Ocean’s 11) and a number of other writers feels like a committee job, one where all the good stuff is squeezed out in favor of a conservatively-written, compromise-heavy screenplay that wants to be an R-Rated film but settles for a bland PG-13.
Tower Heist is never a good film, but it’s not a bad one, either. It’s slick but middling, modest cable/Netflix fare, lightweight and amiable, occasionally boring but sometimes fun. It’s also a goddamn treat to see the old Eddie Murphy again, even in a character as poorly written as Slide. I wish it were a sign of better things to come, but his only upcoming projects include voice work for an animated film and another Brian Robbins (Norbit) travesty, which is to say: Tower Heist could be the last glimpse of the man we once knew, the twitching nerves of an 80’s corpse.