“Tower Heist” is a heist flick much of which takes place in a tower. The high rise is a posh Manhattan condo that prides itself on being the most expensive one on this most expensive of islands. In the penthouse lives one of the wealthiest men in the city—his rooftop pool has a giant $100 bill painted on the bottom—who bears a more than passing resemblance to Bernie Madoff. The central driver of the plot is that he has made off (sorry, couldn’t resist) with millions of dollars in other people’s money.
So that’s the first heist, but not the one the title refers to. That comes later and is, of course, the film’s high point (sorry again). On the way there, director Brett Ratner (best known for the “Rush Hour” movies) supplies enough surprises and laughs to keep our interest, though he takes a while to get traction. He is helped considerably by cinematographer Dante Spinotti, as well as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
But the film’s main appeal is its cast, headed by Ben Stiller, supported by Eddie Murphy, Matthew Broderick, Gabourey Sidibe, and Casey Affleck. Tea Leoni does a nice turn, too, and Alan Alda makes an arrogant, despicable villain. Since everything plays out almost exactly by the heist flick formula—think “Ocean’s Eleven” or “the Italian Job”—Ratner has to rely on his actors to give it novelty. After some initial dead spots and forced hilarity, they deliver.
The rich guy, one Arthur Shaw, likes to parade his working class roots and his affinity with the “little people,” like the hotel’s manager, Josh Kovacs (Stiller). But Josh has been suckered into investing his retirement money and that of all the staff in Shaw’s Ponzi scheme. When the FBI arrests Shaw, they all appear ruined: one of them, the doorman, even tries to kill himself. When he is fired for taking out his anger on Shaw’s fancy car, Josh starts to concoct a scheme to get all of their money—a literal payback—and begins to enlist some of his co-workers in the effort.
Problem is, none of them has the criminal instincts or aptitude to pull it off. For that, Josh has to enlist the aid of a real burglar: longtime acquaintance (but not friend) “Slide” (Murphy), a trash-talking loser who is less than meets the eye. His training sessions for his anti-Ocean’s gang include shoplifting, lockpicking, and reminding them that nothing ever goes as planned in a robbery.
The rest of the movie bears him out, with the surprises and reversals building thick and fast. Murphy—who needs a comeback badly—gets it here: his energetic presence seems to jump start the rest of the cast, especially Broderick, playing a fired Merrill Lynch broker who’s a whiz with numbers but a schlub at life. Leoni, playing an FBI agent who befriends Josh, brings more to the role than the part implies, particularly in one scene where she and Stiller get drunk together.
“Tower Heist” is rated PG-13 for language, but there’s nothing here to endanger our youth, who are not likely to turn to a life of crime from having seen it. It’s amazingly timely, given the Wall Street Occupiers’ concerns about the bottom 99% getting taken to the cleaners by the upper 1%. The arrogant Madoff character ends up in a different sort of penthouse, but so does—ah, but that would be telling. Enjoy the surprises.