Friday, November 4, 2011

Review: Tower Heist (2011) is a solid, low-key comedic caper that respects its own story and doesn't sacrifice its own reality for laughs.

Tower Heist
110 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

Brett Ratner's Tower Heist is an unassuming caper film that works because it doesn't try to force laughs or excitement down our throats.  The film is arguably more of a light drama than a pure comedy, and its laughs never come at the expense of the inherent seriousness of the situation.  Director Ratner and writers Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson take the story that they have created as seriously as they can, while respecting the intelligence and viewpoints of all the major characters.  It is not a great film, but it occasionally flirts with being a great movie.  At its core, Tower Heist is basically as good as every major studio concoction should be as a matter of principle.

The plot is pretty simple.  The many and varied employees of an apartment complex for the rich and fabulous are shocked to discover that the wealthy business man Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) who lives at the top floor has basically defrauded all of their pensions.  By the end of the first act, a few scammed employees (Ben Stiller, Michael Peña, Casey Affleck, and Gabourey Sidibe) and one evicted tenant (Matthew Broderick) have decided to try to break into the penthouse and steal some of it back.  The usual caper mischief ensues as the colorful gang of neophyte criminals stumble their way through their righteous revenge scheme as the federal agents (represented by Téa Leoni) try to make their case against the devious Arthur Shaw.  Of course, the main draw at the box office will likely be Eddie Murphy, who shows up at the end of the first act as a childhood acquaintance of Stiller's whose criminal ways come in handy during the planning stages.

This arguably Murphy's 'return to form', as its his first live-action, adult comic role since I Spy in 2002 (and arguably his first good adult comic role since Bowfinger in 1999).  Murphy is purely here as a comic force, as his character is pretty thin.  After his introduction and a wonderful scene where he basically auditions his would-be cohorts to test their criminal intent, Murphy basically fades into the background and only shows up when the plot requires it.  On the other hand, it is to Ratner's credit that Murphy's comic riffs are not allowed to take over the movie or lessen the seriousness of the proceedings.  As I mentioned above, the film's greatest strength is that it respects the gravity and tragedy of the situation.  Without hitting us over the head with 'haves vs. have-nots' moralizing, the film's uncommonly strong opening act clearly establishes the subtle relationship that exists between the wealthy and those who earn their living by attending to their needs.  

While Alan Alda is arrested after the first reel, the film takes his time establishing his overt villainy.  His character maintains his 'I'm just like one of you!' pretense longer than you'd think, which makes his interactions with Stiller all the more compelling (truth be told, his scenes with Stiller are the best moments in the movie).  Ben Stiller plays the straight man and basically delivers what amounts to a dramatic performance.    His guilt over having played a key role in the financial ruin of his coworkers is palpable (it was he who asked Arthur Shaw to invest the pension funds in what turned out to be a Ponzi scheme), and the film never lets him off the hook for it.  Gabourey Sidibe has the best line in the film, bluntly informing Stiller that "I never asked anyone to triple my portfolio", which acknowledges the true tragedy of the financial tomfoolery of the last decade: many of the people who lost the most weren't high-risk and high-net investors but merely working people who thought they were making safe long-term investments.

The film also earns kudos for making Téa Leoni's dedicated federal agent an intelligent and thoughtful character.  It is to the film's credit that you find yourself rooting for Stiller's crew while not wanting Leoni to be humiliated in the process.  The only character who loses out is Judd Hirsch, who doesn't get nearly enough screen-time and suffers an unearned third-act humiliation that is never rectified.  As strong as the first act is, the film loses a bit of steam during the truncated second act (I'm guessing quite a bit was cut from the middle of the picture), while the crime itself, while clever in its complications and twists, goes on far too long to maintain tension.  This is certainly not a picture for those expecting a crackerjack heist and the film does play fair in terms of what novice criminals could actually pull off in this situation.  The final reels do give way to a few plot twists (including some action that looks and feels real and to-scale with the story up to that point), which in turn leads to an uncommonly satisfying finale.

Tower Heist is not high art, nor is it a high point in any of the genres which it may find itself classified.  But it is a surprisingly strong movie, with compelling and intelligent characters who act like rational adults more often than not.  It is unafraid to not be funny when the movie calls of it, and its comic moments never betray the reality of the narrative.  Stiller, Alda, and Leoni do fine dramatic work, while Murphy, Sidibe, and Peña earn honest laughs.  Ratner earns audience investment the old-fashioned way, with strong performers, intelligent, if un-showy dialogue, and a relevant story, and relatable characters who makes us care about the outcome.  Tower Heist may not be great, but it is the kind of 'good' that we used to take for granted in our big-studio films.

Grade: B

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails