Bastille on the Hudson: Murphy and Stiller exceed all expectations in silly and surprisingly funny Tower Heist.
Thursday, November 3, 2011
For a film critic, there are few pleasures more satisfying than ripping a bad movie. But one of those few is discovering a film that you were expecting to hate – a movie that you had no doubt whatsoever would turn out to be utterly awful – turns out to be wonderful.
Tower Heist is one of those movies.
To say that I am not a fan of director Brett Ratner is an understatement. His Rush Hour movies are some of the worst examples of revolting modern minstrel shows and incoherent action. His X-Men: The Last Stand is damn near unwatchable. His movies have been the multiplex equivalent of a spoiled brat throwing a tantrum.
I can’t say I’m a convert to Ratner, for whom the term fauxteur was coined, and rightly so. But I’m happy to admit in this case, Ratner has made a good film. Kudos to him for stepping back and letting the smart script – instead of cinematic spite – take center stage.
The flavor of Ted Griffin’s early work – for marvelous films such as Ocean’s Eleven – is all over this. As are hints of his cowriter Jeff Nathanson’s Catch Me If You Can. (I’ll pretend I don’t know he is credited on Rush Hour 2 and 3.) Also credited are Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, who wrote the underappreciated sly college comedy Accepted, which demonstrates goofy high-concept movies don’t have to be stupid.
Of course Tower Heist is goofy high-concept: the title alone makes it sound like a parody. When the working-class schmoes who keep a ritzy Manhattan residential building running discover they’ve been defrauded out of their pensions by one of the residents, a Wall Street sleaze, they decide to rob him of his millions as literal payback.
It’s as simple as that. Throw in Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, neither of whom have good track records with live-action studio comedies lately, and it sounds like a recipe for idiotic disaster.
And yet it works. I couldn’t believe it as I was watching: I found myself feeling genuine sympathy for Ben Stiller’s smoothly competent building manager, because he is not a caricature, and he’s certainly not the Ben Stiller Cartoon Punching Bag he’s taken to playing in too many movies. And his coworkers – maids and elevator operators, doormen and concierges, played in key roles by Michael Peña, Gabourey Sidibe and Casey Affleck – are treated by the film with a shocking level of respect, even when playing their quirks for laughs.
There are some nicely sharp satirical elements of class warfare here that could not be more of-the-moment. Alan Alda’s slimy hedge-fund manager, Arthur Shaw, should have known better than to piss off the people who know every intimate detail of his life. Except he was used to the “little people” in his life not realizing the power they could wield over him… or being too honest to take advantage of their knowledge. Now, though: “We’ve been casing this place for over a decade,” Stiller’s Josh Kovacs notes to his coworkers. “We just didn’t know it.”
But it’s thievery and heartlessness that make up the villainy here, not wealth. Matthew Broderick’s Chase Fitzhugh is a Tower resident getting foreclosed upon – he’s been dinged, too, by the financial meltdown – but he too is treated with respect and sympathy for his plight. (It hurts to lose your home even if you’re rich, or were.) In a remarkable confluence, Tower Heist mirrors, under the comedy, the anger of the Occupy movement: There is no demonization of the wealthy here, but there is rage at inequity, injustice and the free passes given to the powerful and the connected.
On top of all the juicily satisfying fury, the actual heist stuff is clever and original (if completely preposterous and almost certainly physically impossible). The action is fresh and funny, and made more potent performed by nonaction heroes, just regular guys who really, really don’t want to get hurt. There’s the real New York vibe that can come only from shooting in New York – the finale set among and around the Thanksgiving Day parade is ingenious. And refreshingly, none of the humor is cheap or sordid, even when it’s occasionally raunchy. It is, God help me, astonishingly sweet.
I’m truly stunned by how much I love Tower Heist. But delightedly so. Seriously, see this movie and ask yourself why more big, silly entertainments can’t be this not-stupid.
TOWER HEIST (3) • Directed by Brett Ratner •Starring Eddie Murphy, Ben Stiller, Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick • Rated PG-13 • 104 min. • At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.