Further evidence that the working class is sharpening its pitchforks to storm Wall Street’s castle, “Tower Heist” serves up an old-fashioned comedy caper in which employees in a tony residential high-rise scheme to steal back the millions embezzled by the Bernie Madoff-style fat cat living in the building’s penthouse. But the big-budget pic goes wonky on the way to the bank, due to its lackluster pacing and shortage of the qualities that typically earn stars Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy their paychecks — namely, laughs. Still, their involvement should help protect Universal’s investment, ensuring decent returns into the holidays.
In a heist movie, the less time spent on setup the better. But helmer Brett Ratner, whose unapologetically broad yet super-slick entertainments have previously demonstrated a keen sense of what auds want, instead draws out the setup. Smitten with the building (Trump Tower, but never identified as such), he deliberately establishes each of the characters, from smug billionaire Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda, perfectly cast) to dutiful building manager Josh Kovaks (Stiller), who admires Shaw and takes his job incredibly seriously — until he learns that the Tower’s top-floor tenant pocketed the staff’s retirement savings.
The script, credited to five writers, patiently waits for disillusion to sink in, trickling down through the building and its personnel, which include a clueless expectant-father concierge (Casey Affleck), a bankrupt investor (Matthew Broderick) and a devastated old doorman (Stephen McKinley Henderson) who tries to step in front of a subway train when he learns what became of his nest egg. The film also supplies a first-day-on-the-job bellhop (Michael Pena), whose arrival allows for a remedial tour of the Tower’s security operations, which sound complicated but don’t really impact the heist in any way.
For the first 40 minutes or so, the pic plays like a dull blue-collar drama populated entirely by stereotypes, none more outrageous than Murphy, who appears on Josh’s way to and from work, wearing a do-rag and shouting at his girlfriend in the street — a welcome return to the comic’s irreverent, ’80s-era persona. Sadly, Murphy, who reportedly hatched the project as an all-black answer to the “Ocean’s Eleven” series, isn’t in the movie much. By the time his idea reached the screen, it had been rethought to such a degree that Murphy now finds himself the only black character in the initial crew, enlisted because “he’s been arrested a bunch of times.” The gang later recruits a Jamaican safe-cracking maid played by “Precious” star Gabourey Sidibe, who gives Murphy a chance to squirm under her sexual advances (hilarious) and fend off fat jokes (not so much).
Once the wheels finally start to turn on Josh’s plan to steal back the money Shaw embezzled, “Tower Heist” picks up some much-needed momentum. Ratner finds himself on firmer ground in such familiar genre territory, having previously done some of his best work on little-seen heist movie “After the Sunset,” which recognized that the only thing more entertaining than actually nabbing a multimillion-dollar prize is trying to get away with it.
“Tower Heist” spends the rest of its running time tracking the crew as they try to infiltrate Shaw’s penthouse, locate his hidden millions and, when that fails, make off with the prized 1963 Ferrari he keeps parked in his living room. But the consequences get short shrift — a strange choice, after having introduced Tea Leoni as a sympathetic FBI agent who agrees to go out with Josh the Saturday after the heist is planned. The resolution feels rushed, especially as concerns Stiller’s character; the actor, so good at playing annoyed, might have been better used trying to thwart the heist from within, rather than leading it.
A subplot in which Josh and Shaw play computer chess suggests there’s a battle-of-the-wits aspect to the caper, though the most entertaining bits showcase the ensemble at their most clueless, as when Murphy tests his amateur cohorts by daring them to steal $50 worth of merchandise from the mall — the scene that best fosters genuine identification with these buffoons.
During the heist itself, the suspense is palpable, if only because Christophe Beck’s funky score blares its horns so insistently, one can’t help but feel anxious. But the laughs don’t follow, squandering such set pieces as Broderick dangling from the bumper of a sports car suspended 50-odd stories above New York’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade without the madcap hilarity — or gimme golden-parachute jokes — they so richly deserve.