Monday, November 7, 2011

Have-Nots v. Have: TOWER HEIST

The great irony of Tower Heist is that it’s an expensive Hollywood production made by and starring wealthy people that nonetheless manages to tap into some of the 99% rage that’s sweeping the country. The plot concerns a Bernie-Madoff-style Ponzi scheme that sends sleazy finance titan Arthur Shaw (a slimy performance from Alan Alda) into house arrest pending trial. The employees at The Tower, the – what else? – towering New York apartment building he lives in had their entire pensions invested with the man. They’re understandably furious and disappointed when they learn that not only is their money gone, but also that the man will be locked up on the top floor for the near future. It seems that they’ll never get their money back, until a plan begins to form. What follows is involving and enjoyable escapism, competently executed fluff.

Ben Stiller plays Josh Kovacs, the manager of the building, a man who is great at his job, who cares deeply about the building, it’s inhabitants, and it’s employees. It was his idea to ask about investing the pensions with their richest resident. When the FBI agent (the always welcome Téa Leoni) in charge of investigating and detaining Arthur Shaw tells the manager that it’s unlikely that the staff will get their money back soon, if at all, he storms up to the penthouse with the concierge, his brother-in-law (Casey Affleck), and the newly hired elevator operator (Michael Peña). Much to their surprise, Kovacs takes a golf club and destroys some of Shaw’s personal property. The Tower’s owner (Judd Hirsch) promptly fires them.

The three of them are now in the perfect position to execute a plan that, if it succeeds, will steal back enough money to give to the staff that has had their savings ground under by this financial skullduggery. They’ll rob Shaw, a daring, high stakes heist, and find the missing millions that the FBI has been unable to find. To pull off the heist, the three guys get in contact with an ex-banker (Matthew Broderick) who was too meek and honest for the business, apparently, and who was recently evicted from The Tower. He’s good with numbers, but they’ll still need help with the actual robbing part. Luckily, Kovacs went to daycare with a man from his neighborhood who was just the other day arrested for his thievery. They bail him out and get him to help, bringing into the picture Eddie Murphy, who talks a mile-a-minute in his slickest, funniest performance in over a decade.

Now that the team has fallen into place, it’s only a matter of pulling off the heist. It’s complex to a certain degree, although nothing compared to the works of Danny Ocean and crew, filled with double crossings and unexpected complications. The film sets up the stakes and then sends the cast through it capably. The other staff members – Gabourey Sidibe (a maid with a slippery Jamaican accent), Marcia Jean Kurtz (a no-nonsense secretary), and Stephen Henderson (a twinkly-eyed doorman) – fill out the rest of the supporting cast nicely, which is already peppered with talented people giving funny performances. The heist has to work with and around the staff to pull it off and it’s nice to see a big Hollywood production make decent use of its ensemble.

Director Brett Ratner has a reputation as a shallow studio hack that’s not entirely unearned. His films do generally feature a baseline competency, though. I’m not prepared to make some kind of grand auteurist defense on his behalf, but I will say that when paired up with good actors and a decent script, he has at times shown that he knows how to stay out of the way. He is not a filmmaker of distinctive personality, but that’s okay here as it is in, say, his Rush Hour. This is nothing more than a super slick, pleasing and broad, feather-light entertainment. It gets the job done. The writing can’t be called especially nimble, but the script by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson is light enough on its feet to generate enough excitement and enjoyment. There’s some fun stunt work and great use of the building’s height to create some stomach-dropping moments, all the while the score by Christophe Beck, which must be a partial homage to David Shire’s for the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three, keeps things bouncing along nicely. Dante Spinotti shoots the film in warm, shining autumn colors that enhance the New York City in late November setting with some terrific location shooting during Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

That’s probably the best, if awfully imperfect, analogy for why the film worked for me. It’s a soothing, professional spectacle of a comic thriller that parades big stars and photogenic locations through an exciting plot that is both familiar and new. There’s little attempt to flesh out the emotional or personal lives of the characters, although there’s a charming low-key romance the starts to develop between Stiller and Leoni before it’s dropped entirely once the plot really gets going. It’s a big, shallow entertainment that nonetheless taps into some very real class outrage and gives the whole thing a bit more of a kick than it would otherwise have. Tower Heist is light recessionary escapism that’s just satisfying enough to be a lot of fun. 

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