Friday, November 4, 2011

Tower Heist: Quite a steal

Tower Heist (2011) • View trailer for Tower Heist
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for profanity and snarky sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.4.11

I had to check my calendar, to make sure it wasn’t 1982.

There was Eddie Murphy, as fresh, feisty and funny as he was back in 48 Hrs. and Trading Places. No preening. No mugging. No vanity turns.
Josh (Ben Stiller, far left) and his unlikely crew — from left, Mr. Fitzhugh
(Matthew Broderick), Enrique (Michael Peña), Charlie (Casey Affleck) and
Slide (Eddie Murphy) — case the luxury tower condominiums across the
street, seeking a way to evade FBI agents, police officers and regular staff
members while somehow making their way to the penthouse, where they hope
to find and steal $20 million.

Honestly, Murphy hasn’t been this entertaining in a live-action film for ... well, decades. He’s been an arrogant, self-centered glory hound for so long that I’d forgotten he could be anything else.

And Tower Heist is the perfect vehicle for this vintage, everything-old-is-new-again Eddie Murphy. In many ways, director Brett Ratner’s film even feels retro, as if it might have been made back in the 1970s or ’80s, during the glory days of heist comedies such as The Hot Rock and The Thief Who Came to Dinner.

Yep, this film is that much fun.

Ratner knows this territory, having helmed After the Sunset — a nifty, under-appreciated 2004 heist flick with Pierce Brosnan — in between Rush Hour and X-Men entries. Ratner delivers just the right breezy, light-hearted tone, while granting us a despicable villain to loathe: a guy we’re begging the heroes to take down.

More crucially, Ratner and his four writers — Ted Griffin, Jeff Nathanson, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage — pay careful attention to every member of an engaging ensemble of characters. And, in the grand tradition of such storylines, they’re the most unlikely “burglars” since Dick Van Dyke oversaw an aristocratic household of larcenous servants in 1967’s Fitzwilly.

The vintage atmosphere notwithstanding, the setting is completely contemporary: a luxury New York Central Park condominium complex dubbed The Tower, where manager Josh Kovaks (Ben Stiller) commutes from Queens — rising at 4:30 a.m. each day — in order to ensure that every last little detail is perfect for each tenant.

That’s every detail, whether dog-sitting an elderly woman’s pampered pooch, warning a philandering husband that his wife has returned three days early from an overseas trip, or running interference as bank officials try to evict destitute former Wall Street broker Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick).

Josh also enjoys matching wits during chess games played via the Internet with investment titan Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), who lives in the penthouse, where his many pleasures include a daily swim in the rooftop pool.

Much as the tenants depend on Josh, he also is respected by his own staff: the beloved elderly doorman, Lester (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who shares old jokes with anybody who will listen; a feisty maid, Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe, well remembered from Precious), who takes guff from nobody; the evasive Miss Iovenko (Nina Arianda), clandestinely studying for the bar while insisting she’s doing no such thing; and newly hired Enrique Dev’Reaux (Michael Peña), a bellhop/elevator operator-in-training delighted to have traded up from his former position at Burger King.

Oh, yes: and Charlie (Casey Affleck), Josh’s brother-in-law, who works as The Tower’s concierge and isn’t nearly as savvy as he imagines himself.

All in all, Josh runs an operation that ticks along with the precision of a finely tuned clock ... until one ghastly morning, when Shaw is arrested and charged with stealing $2 billion from his investors. The news gets worse: Josh also entrusted the pension plans of his fellow Tower staffers to Shaw.

As the shell-shocked Josh soon learns from FBI special agent Claire Denham (Téa Leoni), Shaw’s glad-handing persona is a front. The supposedly wealthy Wall Street titan actually has executed a massive Ponzi scheme, and is a condescending jerk who’s far more comfortable stealing from blue-collar workers than from his elite clients. Not that it matters: Everybody's money has gone up in smoke.

And yet, as Claire privately grouses to Josh — having taken a shine to him — nobody can find Shaw’s “escape money.”

Which means, Josh realizes, that the loot must be stashed somewhere in the penthouse. Wanting to make it up to his colleagues, Josh decides to steal that money, despite a few obvious hurdles: Shaw is in the place all the time, under house arrest by FBI agents; and of course Josh and his staff don’t exactly have the necessary experience.

Enter Slide (Murphy), a low-life con artist who once played with Josh when both were children in Queens, and now enjoys harassing the Tower manager each day, en route to and from work.

That’s right: Murphy doesn’t even enter the picture until well into the second act, at which point Slide’s coarse self-assurance proves a hilarious contrast to the well-meaning but bumbling efforts of Josh, Charlie and the rest of their reluctant “crew.”

Ratner’s biggest coup is simply riding herd on this posse of scene-stealers. It’s quite refreshing, for starters, to see Stiller play an intelligent, honorable guy: an actual three-dimensional human being, as opposed to the witless, pratfall-prone oafs in junk such as The Heartbreak Kid and Little Fockers. He and Leoni positively sparkle, and her comic timing remains flawless as always; watch her impeccable body language as Josh and Claire dissect the situation while getting blasted at a local tavern.

Murphy’s simply a stitch: every bit as sly, sneaky and snarky as Axel Foley was, back in the first Beverly Hills Cop. Watch his eyes as Slide realizes that Odessa is flirting with him; surprise, brief disbelief and then lusty enthusiasm emerge in a few blinks, as Murphy and Sidibe seal the deal with some playful double-entendres.

Alda is equally engaging, albeit for wholly different reasons: He has Bernard Madoff’s supercilious strut down to a science, including the infuriating, patronizing smirk that was caught by so many news photographers, in the early days following Madoff’s guilty plea to 11 federal felonies. Alda nails the guy, and Shaw’s patronizing superiority just gets worse as the story progresses. Every time we think this skunk has sunk to the lowest possible depths, he finds another sewer to inhabit.

Broderick is a hoot as the fussy, flustered and fearful Fitzhugh: not much of a stretch from the actor’s Leo Bloom in The Producers, up to and including his accounting alacrity. Peña is all youthful eagerness — if very few smarts — as the enthusiastic Enrique, and Henderson’s Lester is the beloved uncle we’d all love to have in the family.

Affleck’s Charlie is the story’s weak link, although this isn’t the actor’s fault; the writers seem not to know how to handle the character. Charlie’s flip-flops simply don’t make sense, as the second act segues to the third.

The heist itself, a masterpiece of improbable planning and hilarious execution, includes a priceless sequence orchestrated against Macy’s annual Thanksgiving parade, complete with numerous beloved giant balloons and place of pride — along with a scripted shout-out — to Snoopy’s WWI Flying Ace. Macy’s hasn’t played such an important role in a film since Miracle on 34th Street.

A few key details of the heist are glossed over, for the simple reason that they couldn’t happen; too many laws of physics would be violated in the process. One key act moves from point A to B off-camera, leaving us to say, Hey, wait a minute ... but you truly won’t mind. By this point, the film has built up too much good will to let pesky details intrude.

Christophe Beck’s score lends dramatic heft when necessary, but mostly delivers a whimsical subtext with occasional triumphant fanfares, as various obstacles are overcome. Mark Helfrich edits the scenes smartly, leaving us wanting to spend more time with these characters: always a good thing.

All told, Tower Heist should hijack plenty of box-office loot during the weeks leading up to the annual Thanksgiving kick-off of Oscar-bait. I wish Hollywood could deliver more films like this one.

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