There are several stretches in Tower Heist in which the movie achieves the plate-spinning energy that every caper comedy strives for. In one of them, a gang of amateur robbers tries to steal a cherry-red Ferrari — yes, an entire car — from the living room of a huge penthouse on the top floor of a luxury Manhattan apartment building without being spotted (oh, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is marching past the building at the same time). The premise is preposterous and absurd, but that’s exactly the point, and the long set piece is so well directed that you can’t even spot the special-effects work.
The sequence plays to the strengths of director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, X-Men: The Last Stand), who is adept at choreographing large-scale action and mayhem: His movies all have physical heft and a strong sense of place. But characters – people – trip him up. Ratner has rounded up an impressive ensemble cast (Ben Stiller, Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck, Gabourey Sibide and an invigorated Eddie Murphy) to play the staff members of the eponymous condo tower, who plot an elaborate robbery to steal back the pensions that a Bernie Madoff-ish crook (Alan Alda) took from them. The script is by Ted Griffin (Ocean’s Eleven) and Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can), who have proven themselves more than capable of writing brisk, smart entertainments.
But Ratner lets the seams show. You can practically diagram every scene in the film: The ones that slip in the backstories of the characters (Affleck’s wife is eight months pregnant; Sibide’s work visa is about to expire), the ones that reveal important information in-between the laughs (Tea Leoni’s excellent moment as an FBI agent who’s had too much to drink), the ones intended to inject some emotion into the picture (an attempted suicide) and the ones where the actors were allowed to riff and improvise (practically any scene in which Murphy appears).
Ratner understands the primary appeal of ensemble comedies is to cram as many of his stars as possible into each scene, and Broderick is fun to watch as a ruined stock market analyst riffing opposite Murphy, who’s back in 48 HRS./Beverly Hills Cop form as a small-time criminal. Pena reveals some fine comedic chops as the tower’s newly-hired elevator operator, and even Stiller, as the building’s manager, fares OK as the straight-laced guy who is the butt of everyone’s jokes.
What should have felt effortless and light, though, often comes off as laborious. Tower Heist constantly makes you aware of the buttons and levers the movie is pushing and pulling: There’s something artificial and plastic about the film that keeps you from ever truly getting lost into it. Ratner was originally offered the opportunity to direct Ocean’s Eleven, but he passed to make a Rush Hour sequel instead, and Steven Soderbergh stepped in and delivered a polished pop entertainment that spawned two sequels.
With Tower Heist, Ratner wants to find out how his Ocean’s Eleven might have turned out, but I can pretty much guarantee you there will never be a Tower Heist 2 (the ending of the film is particularly flat and sloppy.) The best thing about this mildly diverting but instantly forgettable comedy is that it seems to have awakened something in Murphy that had laid dormant for much of the past two decades. Practically every scene he’s in crackles with energy and spunk (including a hilarious riff about a “gauntlet of lesbians” that sounds like it was ad-libbed on the set, with everyone following Murphy’s lead.)
If Tower Heist marks the beginning of Murphy’s comeback as an adult comedian — his hosting of next year’s Oscars will be the next step — then the film will have been worth it. But surely this expensive, grand-looking movie was intended to be something more than just a footnote in an actor’s career.
Cast: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck, Michael Pena, Tea Leoni, Gabourey Sibide, Alan Alda, Judd Hirsch.
Director: Brett Ratner.
Screenwriters: Ted Griffin, Jeff Nathanson.
Producers: Brian Grazer, Eddie Murphy, Kim Roth.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 104 minutes. Vulgar language. Opens Friday Nov. 4 at area theaters