Everyone likes seeing David whip Goliath, especially these days, with people absorbing the emotional toll of a tanking economy, with limited prospects for recovery. At times like these, we all become like Network‘s Howard Beale, shouting, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Why else does Occupy [your city here] keep rolling?
Already, the recently released film Margin Call, has played on this collective fascination with a group of amoral movie villains straight from the board rooms of the likes of Lehman Brothers or Countrywide Home Loans. Now, a character easily modeled after Bernie Madoff makes his appearance as a central figure in Tower Heist, opening this weekend nationwide. It’s a throwback movie – the caper film – with doses of betrayal, payback and humor mixed into a modern ensemble morality play. Or so director Brett Ratner and stars Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller might have us believe.
We’ll be hearing a lot more about Ratner and Murphy as the Oscars approach, though not necessarily as nominees [and not for long–ed.]. For now, they’ll have to share this Smackdown’s spotlight with a demonstrated role model for caper movies, Ocean’s Eleven. This remake featuring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and a talented supporting cast, earned $450 million and led to a pair of successful sequels. The screenplay from Harry Brown and Charles Lederer is adapted from the 1960 film of the same name. Director Steven Soderbergh has the formula down pat.
Does Tower Heist have the story, cast and special moments to translate our financial insecurities into a better type of caper movie?
Let’s see the plan.
Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) may be too damn conscientious as the manager of a New York residential high-rise, The Tower. He caters to a building full of over-privileged, quirky people using a phalanx of workers who walk the pampered pets, cheerfully run errands and find just the right kind of brie when needed. Kovacs tries to help his helpers by investing their pension fund with the guy in the penthouse, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda). This character probably smiles more than Bernie Madoff, but he’s equally reckless with other peoples’ money. When the money disappears, Josh takes out his frustrations with a golf club on the windshield of Shaw’s Ferrari – a spectacular bit of business that gets him fired.
Grousing prompts an action plan for revenge, but Josh needs help to even the scales. Step One is to find any getaway cash Shaw may have stashed in the penthouse. That’s how we meet an odd assortment of co-conspirators, including Josh’s brother-in-law, Charlie (Casey Affleck); Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe), a maid who works in the building; an evicted tenant, Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick); a former employee, Enrique (Michael Pena); and most notably, Slide (Murphy), a thief with sketchy experience but limitless menace.
This unlikely crew hatches a plan that involves the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, fooling FBI Special Agent Claire Denham (Tea Leoni), and removing that Ferrari from inside Arthur Shaw’s penthouse. The scheme is not what anyone would call an unqualified success, but justice is nevertheless meted out in classic fairy tale fashion.
The screenplay has a “written by committee” feel to it. Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson adapted a story from Griffin, Adam Cooper and (the aptly named?) Bill Collage.
The Defending Champion
Thief Danny Ocean (Clooney) exits prison and immediately reenters the criminal life. He has a plan but needs expertise and financing to pull it off, so Danny travels to Los Angeles to recruit old pal Rusty (Pitt). It’s an easy sell and this road show travels to Las Vegas, where the two seek financing from a fella with an ax to grind. Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) does not relish being squeezed out of the casino business by a former associate, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). Reuben wants payback.
Before long, the plan becomes clear: The crew wants to rob the vault holding all the money from Benedict’s three casinos. If successful, this takedown could net $150 million.
What is less clear, for now, is how the gang plans to pull it off. Danny and Rusty show us by enlisting assorted con men to perform specific tasks. Pickpocket Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon); a phony high-roller, Saul (Carl Reiner, in a great turn); and explosives expert Basher (Don Cheadle) lead the way.
The vault they want to crack is as tightly guarded as a nuclear missile silo. The break-in demands the precision of a military operation, and everyone has a job to perform – although Danny almost gets benched by group edict for neglecting to mention that his ex-wife, Tess (Julia Roberts), is Benedict’s girlfriend. Honor among thieves and all that.
Tower Heist keeps moving fast enough to keep many viewers from seeing how this movie’s fine cast could have done more. Perhaps it’s a numbers thing. Character development may lag when there are so many of them to flesh out. Maybe give those characters something better to say. Apart from Josh (Stiller is quite good and not goofy), only Casey Affleck’s Charlie gives us animation and a sense of his life off-screen. Affleck’s in both movies, and you can track his growth as an actor. Matthew Broderick and Tea Leoni offer tantalizing hints of depth that neither had enough screen time to fully deliver. It’s always fun watching Alda (a fine actor, rightly honored), but he doesn’t play malevolent very convincingly. At least not here. I wanted a heart of stone, like Jeremy Irons chillingly showed us in Margin Call, not Hawkeye Pierce on a bad day.
It’s hard making sense of Murphy’s star billing (being producer may partly explain this). We can’t wait to see how he and director Ratner do as host and producer of the upcoming Oscar broadcast [Looks like we’ll have to keep waiting, as the two have either opted or been forced off the show.–ed.], but Murphy’s role here is small, and he shows little of the charming comic presence that marked his best early work. Truth be told, he’s not memorable in this film. Not so funny, either.
By contrast, Ocean’s Eleven gleams brightly as ever. Smart, telling dialog and enough activity to give a satisfying sense about the back-stories of the ensemble characters. Clooney, Pitt and Roberts show us why we routinely see their names above the title. All handle these roles just right, with no extra physical business to make a point. They look right, too, as does the rest of this talented cast, which includes the late Bernie Mac, Matt Damon and Eddie Jemison.
We don’t see this sort of caper movie very often. They’re hard to do well and easy to Smack around.
This comparison feels like the varsity team squaring off against the JV. Both have evident talent, but the junior varsity is less developed, less nuanced, just less.
Tower Heist will be a crowd-pleaser: It’s good to see Eddie Murphy trying to break a long creative dry spell, even if his best work is probably behind him. Producer Brian Grazer reliably creates entertaining movies and Tower Heist will find a large, if undemanding audience. You won’t feel scammed out of your ticket money on this one, but you’d be better off investing it with our winner, Ocean’s Eleven.