I was trying to figure out a way to find a more backhanded compliment than Brett Ratner‘s “Tower Heist is surprisingly not terrible,” but I came up empty. At first glance, it should be the poster child for everything that’s wrong with mainstream American cinema. Ben Stiller has been playing the same character, his co-star Eddie Murphy doesn’t seem to care about acting anymore, and Ratner is an unimpressive journeyman director. And yet Tower Heist is kind of an entertaining movie. Stiller plays against type, Eddie Murphy shows he can deliver when he’s not phoning it in, and Ratner keeps the film upbeat. There are a mind-blowing number of obvious plot-holes, and the crappy screenplay relies heavily on coincidence, but the movie never comes off as insulting or offensive. Tower Heist is like a sweet child who draws a terrible picture of your house, but he doesn’t know any better and just wants you to be impressed.
Josh Kovacs (Stiller) is a detail-oriented and hard-working building manager of New York City’s most expensive high-rise. However, in his naivety, he gives his pension and the pensions of his staff to Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), the building’s wealthiest tenant. Unfortunately for Josh and his employees, Shaw turns out to be a Ponzi schemer who may as well be called “Ernie Badoff.” Shaw is arrested by the FBI and put under house arrest, and all of the employees are stunned that their pensions were invested without their knowledge (Is this even possible?). Josh, along with his brother-in-law Charlie (Casey Affleck), bankrupt former tenant Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), and elevator operator Enrique (Michael Peña), decide to rob a safe in Shaw’s condo and get their money back, but because they “don’t know how to steal”, they bring in Josh’s neighbor and petty criminal, Slide (Murphy).
There is no reason for Slide to be in this movie. No one needs to be taught “how to steal”. That’s why “Thou shall not steal” is one of the top 10 commandments: we innately know how to do it. If Josh and his team were bringing in a Danny Ocean-type character, that would make perfect sense. But Slide is a lively character who gets to say funny things, and his presence is emblematic of the thought process behind Tower Heist: It doesn’t matter if things don’t make sense as long as the audience is happy with the end result.
That’s why the movie wants you to believe that a major schemer like Shaw can be brought down with a single piece of evidence, or a wealthy man can only afford a safe that’s sold in a storefront window, or characters can magically know the plans of other characters, and everyone can easily turn gold into cash and get the full value of the trade. Also, Tower Heist really hopes you don’t know that pure gold is much heavier than steel.
I could continue to rattle off moments of inept screenwriting and storytelling from what’s clearly a Frankenstein’s monster of a script full of dangling plot threads, but Tower Heist isn’t trying to insult your intelligence because it think it’s smarter than anyone. It wants to be entertaining and it’s moderately successful because Ratner keeps up the humor and pacing. The movie hums along and Ratner is competent enough to keep style to a minimum so his flick can avoid any comparisons to a much better film like Ocean’s Eleven. Unfortunately, he still has no idea how to direct action and the movie’s big set piece delivers none of the intended thrills or drama.
Ratner’s feather touch provides a solid tone, but the entertainment comes from the cast. After seeing countless movies where Stiller plays a meek, milquetoast character, it’s a relief to see him play a strong, confident, and competent guy like Kovacs. There are times when Josh gets flustered, especially by Slide, but for the most part he’s a compelling protgaonist and Stiller does a terrific job. An even larger surprise is Murphy who hasn’t really tried to give a fun comic performance since 1999’s Bowfinger. Tower Heist is proof he still has the goods when he tries, and there’s no need for the crappy kids movies and fat suits. While a few of the supporting cast members are underutilized—particularly Alda and Judd Hirsch— everyone else provides solid comic back-up.
It’s difficult to hate a trifle like Tower Heist. Its most “controversial” point is that devious rich people shouldn’t screw over honest, hard-working folks. If you ever felt that the Ocean’s Eleven movies were too well-made, stylish, and intelligence, then Tower Heist is for people who don’t care about all that. The movie clears an incredibly low bar, but it clears it with such chipper enthusiasm that it’s tough to do anything but shake your head and smile.