Friday, November 4, 2011

'Tower Heist' provides laughs, cliffhanger thrills

By Steve Crum

Multiple choice test. Spot the heist movie: (a) The Anderson Tapes (b) Topkapi (c) The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (d) The Italian Job (e) Oceans 11. Answer: The whole lot. Two of them, Topkapi and Oceans 11 (the original, and its remake and sequels) include comedy elements. Now comes the blatantly named Tower Heist, which is played for broad laughs, including Harold Lloyd-like, hanging from building shtick.

The screenplay, written by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson, has about a relevant center as one can get. Decades ago, it would have been advertised with “torn from the front pages” hyperbole, since it concerns an ultra wealthy investment titan, Arthur Shaw (played with oozing sleaze by Alan Alda), who has ripped off $2 billion from trusting investors. No mistake that his character is based on the infamous Bernie Madoff.

Shaw resides in the top floor suite of NYC’s most luxurious hotel, simply called The Tower. (Consider the hotel an actor unto itself since it is really Trump Tower.) Opening scenes establish that Shaw is extremely friendly with and very dependent upon the hotel’s manager, Josh Kovaks (Ben Stiller). who seems to know the nuances of each and every resident and employee. Ultra efficient is he.

Shaw is so wealthy that he keeps his gleaming red, prized possession, a 1953 Ferrari once owned by Steve McQueen, parked in his living room. How did he get it there? It is logical, as explained in the film. I won’t spoil it.

It is when Stiller’s Kovaks finds out Shaw has absconded with the pensions of virtually all the hotel’s staff that the revenge-based plot ensues. This occurs after Shaw has been put under house arrest, pending trial, for the $2 billion charge. Kovaks is soon fired, along with other staffers, for harming Shaw’s prized car. A plan hatches, spurred by retaliation and reimbursement. Kovaks and associates will steal the millions reputedly hidden in Shaw’s apartment, and redistribute the wealth to Shaw’s hotel victims.

The motley recruits for the caper include Charlie (Casey Affleck), destitute ex-Wall Street broker Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), bellhop Dev’Reaux (Michael Pena), and man-hunting bachelorette Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe). Tea Leoni’s FBI agent, Claire Denham, provides both love interest and caper roadblock for Kovaks. The acting, and laughs, are well distributed and handled among the ensemble. Then there is Slide, played by Eddie Murphy, a petty crook bailed out of jail by Kovaks to teach the amateurs the fine art of gangsterdom.

As for this being Eddie Murphy’s great comeback movie, think again. Think about the fact Murphy has hardly been away long enough for any supposed comeback. His Shrek Donkey persona, via voice, has kept Murphy’s comedy going nonstop, in sequel after sequel. Just consider his Tower Heist role as his voice reconnected with human body. The delivery, and frequently crude cracks, are essentially Donkey-alike. “Look at her big ass....eww, but she has a big ass!” Maybe Donkey-like IS appropriate here.

Really, Eddie Murphy fits perfectly within the Tower ensemble, much like he does within his Shrek crowd. Even though he is billed under Ben Stiller as lead actor, his role is more supporting than star. Stiller is the film’s true anchor. No doubt Murphy’s reputation (and agent) demanded the spotlight.

The production overall is breezy and fun, with a nonstop pace after the first half hour. That is when the action really kicks in. The on location filming, particularly Trump Tower and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, is superb. The cliffhanging sequences from the top of the building will cause anyone with acrophobia (like I suffer) to frequently avert the eyes. Director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) is adept at such screen thrills. He also does fine by a solid, funny cast.

GRADE On an A-F Scale: B
Enjoy some of the laughs and thrills via the trailer: