Although its premise is rooted in today's financial scandals and crises, Tower Heist harks back in subject matter and sometimes in tone to some of the great Depression-era comedies. Certainly its concern with ordinary "working stiffs" has a 1930s feel, even if the latter are working stiffs as conceived and encountered by Hollywood filmmakers - ie domestic staff.
It also turns out to be surprisingly good, especially given that it is directed by Brett Ratner, the Miami-born son of a Jewish refugee from Cuba who has tended to specialise in crass, overblown lowest-common-denominator product like the Charlies Angels franchise (though he is set to produce a film about Adolf Eichmann).
Written by Ted Griffin and Ted Nathanson, Tower Heist fails to capture the careful planning and attention to detail that are essential elements of classic caper and heist films. But the charms of a terrific cast that includes Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, fast-moving and spectacular action, and a decent rate of laughs make it entertaining nonetheless.
Led by dedicated manager Josh (Ben Stiller), the stiffs work at an absurdly luxurious and expensive New York skyscraper (the garish Trump Tower with a digitally added roof-top pool). They are particularly attentive to the needs of the owner of the penthouse apartment, a Bernie Madoff-like character named Shaw (played with a perfect combination of charm, smugness and sudden viciousness by Alan Alda.)
Josh is shocked when Shaw is arrested for fraud and put under house-arrest like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, with FBI agents guarding the door. The papers say that his billions are missing. They happen to include the entire pension fund of the building's loyal and hard-working staff. To Josh's further horror, the tycoon with whom he joked and played chess online turns out not to care at all about the lives he has ruined.
After an out-of-character outburst of violence, Josh gets fired. But he learns from a sympathetic and sexy FBI agent (Tea Leoni) that Shaw has $20 million stashed somewhere in the apartment. He resolves to steal the money with the help of other fired staff members played by Casey Affleck and Michael Peña, plus a brilliant, bankrupted former resident (Michael Broderick), and his petty-thief neighbour Eddie Murphy.
The plan this unlikely gang come up with gets less attention than their kibitzing and, later, some terrific vertiginous cavorting on the tower roof as the Thanksgiving Day parade goes by far below (it says something that Hollywood feels free again to make jokes about people hanging for dear life out of a skyscraper window)
It is a pleasure to see Murphy back on screen in a live action comedy that actually works. (Apart from the Shrek films he has had a decade of unfunny flops.) While Tower Heist does not make the most of his talent for transformation, there is a sequence in the film that makes you think "that is why they needed Eddie Murphy for this role".
The prolific, multi-talented Stiller, has a single comic persona on which he plays slight variations from film to film (though he demonstrated a wider range in Zoolander). In the Focker movies that persona is antic, whiny and sometimes irritating. In films like Night at the Museum, he plays a kinder, long-suffering under-achiever. His character here is, fortunately, more of the former.
Tower Heist should have been better. Its plotting is slapdash and it has an ending that is implausible and poorly-thought-out even by the rules of a comedy caper. It fails to make enough use of Leoni, the comedienne who was Stiller's co star in Flirting with Disaster. That said, it is good to see her back on screen and to encounter a comedy that manages to be simultaneously topical and breezily lighthearted.