'Tower Heist' Gets Halfway There
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
A few years back this reviewer interviewed the writer and director Kevin Smith, just as he was beginning shooting a film that was to wind up being called "Cop Out" (the working title at the time was, in case you're wondering, "A Couple of Dicks"; can't imagine why the studio took a powder on that) with Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan. After allowing that he'd likely be "torn to shreds" for saying this to a journalist, he admitted that he and his colleagues shared a simple ambition for the picture: "We just want to make a TNT Classic. We just want to make that movie that, like, for the rest of our lives at 3 o'clock on a Saturday if you turn on TNT, if this movie is on, you'll watch it and have a great time."
I remembered Smith's ambition about 40 minutes into "Tower Heist," a caper comedy with the hook explained in the title. This picture has got an all-star cast headed up by proven funny people Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy. It's got an underdog versus sleazy-and-powerful bad guy plotline involving a ripped-off building staff conspiring to rob the Madoff-esque money mismanager who took their pensions. It's directed by Brett Ratner, a filmmaker who, while hardly beloved by critics, has the box-office grosses to certify his skill at making cinematic crowd-pleasers (he made all of the "Rush Hour" pictures, for instance). And for a while, it feels like it could be one of those movies that Smith meant. No, not an out-and-out latter-day action classic like "Die Hard," but a chewy, not exactly nutritious but thoroughly watchable exercise like one of the lesser "Lethal Weapon" movies, or maybe an older near-great (or at least better-than-average) fun genre exercise like "The Hot Rock."
Stiller plays the hard-working manager of a very exclusive Manhattan apartment building, the penthouse of which is inhabited by an obscenely wealthy trader (Alan Alda) who likes to boast that he started as a working-class kid from Astoria. Soon FBI agent Tea Leoni comes along to bust Alda's character, Stiller has to tell his own colleagues that Alda likely spent all the money they entrusted to them, and one thing after another leads to Stiller enlisting a typically motley group of ordinary-joes-without-a-clue to attempt a daring break-in to the aforementioned now-heavily guarded penthouse. Murphy plays a neighbor of Stiller's who's believed to be something of a criminal mastermind and hence the "muscle" they need to pull the caper off. He's not all he's advertised as, of course, but that's part of the "fun."
OK, it's not quite fair to put "fun" in quotation marks just yet. As Smith's own disastrous "Cop Out" kind of proved, making a TNT classic isn't as easy as it might look. And as I implied, for the first 40 minutes, or even more, Ratner and his cast -- which also includes Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck, Michael Peña, and, as a predictably but satisfyingly droll housemaid, Gabourey Sidibe -- keep things fast and funny enough that one might think, "Hey, this picture has a real shot at TNT classic-dom!" Murphy really tears into his role as a foul-mouthed/motor-mouthed BS artist, and if you don't think he's funny, maybe you'll prefer Stiller's bemused reactions to some of Eddie's more outrageous pronouncements. Leoni has a great drunk scene with Stiller that seems to bode well for what you'd take to be the film's inevitable romantic component. And so on.
But things take a turn for the worse during the heist itself, as more and more ridiculous elements and obstacles turn up, and Ratner fails to sell them. After going through all the trouble of staging the caper in the middle of New York's legendary Thanksgiving Day parade, "Tower Heist" wastes a number of opportunities for both laughs and thrills and settles for an indifferent and uncomfortable quarter-of-a-chase scene. Not the sort of set piece that any kind of classic is made of, alas. So in 20 months or so when you're channel-surfing basic cable and you happen upon this film, just hope you get in on the first half. And start channel-surfing again right after the heisters open the safe.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.