The heist movie is a very particular type of cinematic pleasure.
If you want to see an example of the very best that the genre can produce, check out the 1966 film “Gambit,” which just got added to Netflix Instant. I can’t emphasize enough just how beautifully built that movie is, and it’s kind of a model for how you need to approach a heist if you really want to pay things off for an audience. In a great heist movie, you need to make a choice early on and then do one of two things. You either (A) set up an elaborate plan and then delight the audience by paying off on that plan or (B) set up an elaborate plan and then delight the audience by showing them every little step of things going wrong. In either case, the pleasure is largely based on either fulfilling or confounding expectations over the course of the movie.
It helps, of course, if you give your heroes a great target to rip off, and “Tower Heist” is in an interesting position in that regard. Right now, as we watch the Occupy movement spread across the country, it is apparent that people feel a disconnect in our society, and setting a heist movie against the backdrop of the recent economic collapse with a Bernie Madoff-style con artist as the bad guy is a really smart move.
The script is credited to Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson, with a story credit going to Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Griffin, and it’s one of those projects that went through a lot of development before finally making it in front of the camera. To have the film hit theaters as the Occupy movement really picked up in momentum is one of those accidents of timing that no one could have ever planned, and I’m curious to see if people want to mix their simmering resentment with their popcorn entertainment.
If so, there’s certainly much to like about “Tower Heist.” It is an amiable, well-made movie that knocks down some easy targets. It’s got a good sense of energy, and it has its fair share of laughs. It is a little more angry than funny, though, which surprised me, and having seen that, I wish they’d gone further. As it is, the film feels like a half-and-half affair, and just watching these two different films wrestle it out is interesting.
Ben Stiller is the center of gravity here, playing Josh Kovacs, the building manager for what is obviously Trump Tower in New York, but which they carefully only call “the Tower” in the movie. It’s an exclusive and amazing residence for the very wealthy, and the staff pampers them exactly as much as they expect to be pampered, with Kovacs always there to make sure everything runs smoothly. And in a building full of people who are used to being treated like royalty, Arthur Shaw is the king of them all. An investment wizard, he’s the penthouse resident, complete with a private pool on the roof accessible only by private elevator, and he’s the sort of guy who is constantly referencing his humble beginnings just so everyone knows just how much he deserves all these nice things he’s earned for himself. Alan Alda is perfect casting for Shaw, and he milks every moment he’s got in the film.
When Arthur Shaw is busted by the feds in an operation spearheaded by Special Agent Claire Denham (Tea Leoni), it becomes quickly obvious that his entire reputation has been built on fraud, and the money that was invested with him is gone. Kovacs has to reveal to the staff of the building that their entire pension fund had been invested with Shaw, and it leaves many of them devastated. Kovacs ends up fired after he confronts Shaw about his behavior, and he decides to rob the building, on the hunt for Shaw’s cash stash, with the help of his best employee Charlie (Casey Affleck) and one the building’s former tenants, Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), who was also ruined by the financial industry’s implosion.
The movie is fairly linear, and your response to it will depend largely on how well you like the chemistry between Stiller, Affleck, Broderick, and Eddie Murphy, who plays Slide, a guy who lives on the same street as Kovacs, and who is constantly in high-visibility trouble with the law. When Kovacs needs a criminal to help them plan the heist, he turns to Slide, and Murphy seems energized by the idea that he doesn’t have to carry the movie at all. He just gets to come in, full energy, and play a guy who would probably be right at home in a conversation with Axel Foley or Billy Ray Valentine. Broderick seems to be equally at home in the part of the incredulous Mr. Fitzhugh, constantly surprised by where he finds himself in life. Michael Pena, who has become one of my favorite comic performers in the last few years, actually manages to steal whole scenes away from Stiller, Broderick, and Murphy, and that’s not easy. He just makes such great choices in comedy that I could watch him do pretty much anything.
The thing that doesn’t quite work is the heist itself. It’s okay, but I wish it was more of a shell game. It feels like they’ve got all the moves right leading up to it, and they know how it should work, but it just doesn’t quite get there. Instead, there are moments that stick, lines that work, and chemistry that sort of bubbles along without ever really reaching a boil, but all in service of an almost of a screenplay. If this thing does catch the zeitgeist, though, there is a basic satisfaction to seeing the 1% take it in the pants from the 99% that the film provides, and maybe that’s enough to justify the sit. People like to rail about Brett Ratner, but he does good work here. It reminds me a lot of his work on “The Family Man” or “After The Sunset,” where there is a simple, slick studio sheen to the thing, leaving room for the cast to do strong ensemble work.
I actually chatted with Ratner about the film, and I’ll have that conversation for you tomorrow morning here on the site. The film opens in theaters everywhere tomorrow.