Sunday, March 18, 2012

Surprisingly Good And Less Funny, Tower Heist Holds Up Remarkably Well!

The Good: Engaging plot, Wonderful acting, Good tension/mood
The Bad: Light on character development, Moments where the humor is forced
The Basics: Tower Heist may have been misbilled as a comedy, but it is surprisingly smart with a wonderful cast performing well!

Lately, my wife has been going through my DVD collection and we've watched a lot of things I like. So, for a date night last night, I made sure to have some movies on hand that I thought she might enjoy. She is a fan of both Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, yet we somehow managed to miss Tower Heist when it was in the theaters. I was open to the movie, especially because I am a bit of a fan of Alan Alda. So, last night, we sat down to a movie that we both figured would satisfy both of us, especially with my wife's love of comedies.

The first "problem" with Tower Heist is that it is not actually a comedy. I put problem in quotes because the advertising of the movie should not actually affect the film all that much. Sure, my wife and I sat down expecting a zany robbery comedy and we were instead treated to a surprisingly tense action-drama, but the strength of Tower Heist is that it was so engaging that we did not care. It is a very rare thing these days when we sit down for one type movie and discover it to be something else entirely that we are not horribly disappointed. But Tower Heist did not disappoint us. Instead, we found ourselves more excited by how the movie was developing. And the comedy that is in the movie, while mostly incidental, generally worked.

Josh Kovacs is the general manager of the Towers, a luxury apartment complex and the most expensive property in New York City. Each day, he arrives at work to tend to the staff and residents of the Towers with a strong sense of professionalism, despite working in a place he could never hope to afford to live in himself. One morning, he believes that the wealthiest resident, Arthur Shaw, is being abducted and he tries desperately to stop the abduction. As it turns out, Shaw was trying to escape the FBI, who arrests him for securities fraud. While Josh tries to keep the staff of the Towers professional, it does not take long for even Kovacs to suspect that Shaw may be guilty. This takes on a deeply personal aspect for Kovacs and the staff of the Towers when Kovacs reveals to the employees that he requested Shaw manage their pensions and now their entire life savings is frozen or missing altogether.

When the doorman, Lester, attempts to kill himself by throwing himself in front of a subway, Kovacs - who has had meetings with FBI Special Agent Denham who further implies the government has a case against Shaw - confronts Shaw. In the process, Kovacs does serious damage to Shaw's prized car and gets himself, Charlie and Enrique fired. Now, with nothing left to lose, Josh decides to get the staff's pension money back the best way he knows how; stealing it from the cash safety net that Denham implies all white collar criminals have. Kovacs assembles a team, including Slide, a smalltime criminal from his neighborhood, to break into the Towers and steal from Shaw.

Tower Heist was largely advertised as a buddy comedy with Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy and it does Brett Ratner's work a serious disservice to consider it that way. First, Murphy's character, Slide, is a comparatively minor character who truly only has a presence in the latter half of the film. Second, virtually every scene that actually features Murphy and Stiller together doing anything remotely like comedy is featured in the many trailers for the movie. Apparently, the advertising executives for Imagine thought that audiences would not be able to accept Ben Stiller or Eddie Murphy in roles where they are not being funny, despite Stiller's role in Envy (reviewed here!) and Murphy's role in Dreamgirls (though, truth be told, I've found very little of what Murphy has done in recent years to be funny). So, the first useful aspect of a consideration of Tower Heist is that it is not, actually, a comedy. It is far, far too serious for that and the comedy that does come up is mostly just to break the tension.

Tower Heist, instead, is a surprisingly engaging story of what happens when economics drives smart people to do bad things. Arthur Shaw is an exceptional antagonist. Never taking responsibility for his actions, he starts off Tower Heist with a friendly relationship with Josh. Even when he is first arrested, Kovacs is careful to trend more toward neutrality than suspicion. He is a rich man who covers his crimes well. He appears decent and even offers Kovacs future employment before his crimes are revealed. But the real greatness of how horrible the character is comes when he is arrested. He turns to Kovacs and the two begin playing a very different chess match than the games they play against one another online. Shaw's coolness and confidence and his lack of interest in Lester's condition reveal to Kovacs the man's inhumanity. From that point on, Kovacs is on a righteous cause.

In the process of achieving a larger sense of justice, Tower Heist argues that some lesser wrongs must be perpetrated. Kovacs is essentially a leader looking out for the needs of the many. By taking on Shaw and attempting to get Lester, Charlie, and everyone else's money back, Shaw becomes a modern day Robin Hood (which is alluded to within Tower Heist). What is so smart about the story written by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson is that they are not monolithic in the characters they created.

Tower Heist may be very low on character development, but it is populated by characters who make sense and fit a very diverse sense of what the world is. So, for example, Mr. Fitzhugh is an investment banker who has had some serious bad luck with the economic downturn in the world and as a result is being evicted. Well before his eviction, he has sold off most all of his possessions in order to try to save his marriage and keep his children from finding out. It is only as a last resort that a man like that turns to crime and that is reflected perfectly in Fitzhugh's objections within Tower Heist. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is Slide, who has never pulled off a job anywhere near as sophisticated as the one Kovacs brings him in to do. So, when there is the possibility of success, he is predictably treacherous. He does not grow, change or develop in the course of the movie, he simply reveals more of who he was all along.

In fact, there is no real character development in Tower Heist. Kovacs is a leader, Charlie is a worried soon-to-be-father, Lester is a man who has lost everything and sees no chance of ever getting it back. All of the characters, as adults of their age and socioeconomic statuses, are predictably set in their ways. So, what Tower Heist helps to show is the power fairly normal people actually have. Ratner and the writers create a very satisfying morality play that works with Tower Heist.

Tower Heist is also notable for the performances. Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick, Michael Pena, Tea Leoni and Judd Hirsch give memorable supporting performances. Eddie Murphy's role of Slide is essentially a supporting role as well and he is good as the fast-talking scam artist and balcony robber. Ben Stiller performs well. Actually, Stiller illustrates that he has all of the serious qualities to be a captain in the Star Trek franchise in Tower Heist. Far from being at all zany or utilizing his gift for physical comedy, in Tower Heist Stiller is physically restrained, articulate and he embodies a concerned leader expertly. Never before has Stiller appeared on screen as commanding as he does in Tower Heist.

But, it is Alan Alda who deserves the real acting kudos for Tower Heist. Usually good natured, Alda appears in Tower Heist as Arthur Shaw. Here is trades in his genial grandfather image for a cold, calculating white collar criminal who is as heartless as he is efficient. Anyone used to seeing Alan Alda as an articulate, emotive liberal needs to watch Tower Heist, for he convincingly becomes one of the most compelling and realistic villains on film in years as Shaw!

Now on Blu-Ray and DVD, Tower Heist comes with a bevy of entertaining bonus features. In addition to alternate endings and commentary tracks, there are behind-the-scenes featurettes of some of the movie's memorable sequences. The DVD of Tower Heist will give fans their money's worth! But during this time of economic instability, Tower Heist is a satisfying and engaging story of how men and women must fight for basic fairness in an economic scheme that is played on the most uneven playing field in history. Watching how much they accomplish makes Tower Heist both entertaining and deeply cathartic.

For other Brett Ratner works, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Horrible Bosses
X-Men 3: The Last Stand
Prison Break - Season 1
The Family Man


For other movie reviews, please be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for all the film reviews I have written!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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