I don't think Brett Ratner is anyone's favourite director. He bore the brunt of fans' ire for X-Men: The Last Stand (which wasn't that bad, just mediocre), and his career high points are the three Rush Hour movies. And yet after directing nine films, he's still known for having no distinctive personal style whatsoever - in fact, what he's known for lately is saying some highly unwise things, the second of which lost him the plum job of producing the next Oscars. (That "rehearsal is for fags" statement annoys me less for its homophobic slur than what it says about his shoddy work ethic.) He's a filmmaker no movie critic worth their cred would stoop to praising, is what I'm saying.
So since I liked Tower Heist, I'm gonna spend the rest of this review doing my best not to praise him.
Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) is the manager of the Tower, the swankiest apartment building in Manhattan. Its residents demand only the finest service, and Josh demands the same from his small army of staff. But when its most prominent resident Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) is arrested by the FBI for securities fraud, Josh is compelled to ask Shaw for his staff's pension fund that Shaw had helped them invest - a fund that has now been completely wiped out. Stung by Shaw's callousness, he recruits a small gang that includes his concierge and brother-in-law Charlie (Casey Affleck), bellhop Dev'reaux (Michael Peña), former resident and now destitute Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), maid Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe), doorman Lester (Stephen Henderson) - and finally, childhood friend and petty crook Slide (Eddie Murphy). Their goal is to rob Shaw's penthouse apartment in the Tower for a hidden stash of cash that the FBI has yet to find - as well as diverting the attention of FBI agent Claire Denham (Tea Leoni), whom Josh might also want to date.
It's not hard to avoid praising Ratner when you're reviewing a movie written by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson. Both have less-than-impressive entries in their resume (last year's Killers and two of Ratner's Rush Hour flicks), but Griffin wrote Ocean's Eleven and Nathanson wrote Catch Me If You Can, and they both bring their respective talents to fore here. This movie pretty much won me over from the opening minutes, with its likable portrayal of the Tower staff led by the consummate professional Josh, who is unfailingly dedicated to his job yet cares deeply for his people. Likewise the rest of the ensemble, each of whom have their own quirks but are all conscientious, efficient, cheerful working-class joes. I don't know what it is about people doing their jobs well that makes it so enjoyable to watch (or what it is about me that I like watching it so much), but this is probably the single best thing about the movie.
But if you're expecting a wacky buddy-comedy featuring the dream pairing of Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, you might be disappointed. Josh is a strangely un-Stiller-like character, in that he's almost completely uncomedic. And although Stiller isn't bad in it, his vengeful everyman hero could just as easily be played by Russell Crowe or Denzel Washington. Still, Josh is extremely likable, and I liked that early bit of what seemed like clumsy exposition that turned out to be foreshadowing of his hidden reckless side. Murphy, on the other hand, returns to the kind of fast-talking hustler role he hasn't played since his '80s heyday, which is certainly much more welcome than the last few movies he's made. But although he's funny when he appears, he's not in it much. The movie spends more time on its heist plot, its ensemble dynamics and its social injustice theme than the Stiller-Murphy pairing. Slide barely even figures into the story's denouement.
And that heist plot isn't the greatest. It skips over the planning stage, which is one of the chief pleasures of the heist movie, leaving a number of holes in the story's logic. (Was Lester the doorman even part of their gang? He never was, and then suddenly he is.) It sometimes gets both lazy at explaining things - which could be chalked up to scenes left on the cutting room floor - and carried away with the plot complications, especially when two members of the crew suddenly decide to defect and/or sell out the others. And it probably won't spoil things too much if I reveal that their plan to steal money turns into a plan to steal a car, from a high-rise penthouse no less. Which is fun, but lacks the high-energy pacing, direction and clever plotting that could've made it really fun. And yes, it probably is too much to expect that no one on the street would notice a car dangling out a high-rise window, even if there is a parade going on.
Whether they rehearsed or not, the rest of the cast are all good. I liked Casey Affleck's Charlie, who seems a little dim but is still dedicated to his job; I guess the ensemble already has a dimbulb in Michael Peña's Dev'reaux. Fitzhugh, the Wall Street banker who lost his job, seems to be another of the film's nods to the economic realities of the day. I'm glad Gabourey Sidibe, formerly of Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, was able to get another acting job, 'cos she doesn't look like an actress who's gonna get much of those. Tea Leoni has one drunkenly-flirty scene, but damn, she was sexy in it. Alan Alda is deliciously hateable. And no, none of them get a whole lot of character development - in fact, none of them get any character development - but they're all fun to watch, and that's about all they need to be.
This is my second movie in a row to feature the downtrodden poor sticking it to the uppity rich, and I'm a little embarrassed at giving them both the same rating; In Time is much smarter and more ambitious, but Tower Heist possesses a breezy comic energy that's simply more fun. In fact, the other recent film it reminds me of is Real Steel, in its eagerness to be nothing more than a crowd-pleaser - at which, in my book, it is just as successful. Okay, so maybe Brett Ratner deserves some credit for this. He may be a douchebag in his personal life (or not; it's not like I know the guy), and he may never live down that third X-Men movie, but he's not a bad director. He's a perfectly competent one. This means he may never make a great movie, and he may occasionally make some crappy ones, but he will occasionally also make some okay-to-good ones. Tower Heist is one of the latter.
NEXT REVIEW: Alamak... Toyol!
Expectations: alamak Ismail Hasim!