In Tower Heist, on top of some laugh-out-loud moments and a general theme of underdog triumph, there’s a surplus of wink-wink catchphrase motifs, the kind that leave diversion-seeking viewers feeling like pigs in mud. But it’s dead-hollow amusement that’s offered by Brett Ratner’s latest, a bland, schematic contrivance of a class comedy that never elicits any responses beyond the primitive and the childish. Defiantly graceless, Ratner—who, according to devastating new reports, is also in talks to direct the film version of Wicked—deals in loudness, haplessness, obviousness, and, certainly, crudeness, reminding you of his directorial presence with such inclusions as a scolded kid who tells his disciplinarian to “suck it.” Though irreparably marred in the development stages by a quartet of credited writers (including Ted Griffin, picked to recreate the success of his work on Ocean’s Eleven), Tower Heist sees every last bit of its humanity dashed out by Ratner, the aging-yet-regressing Benjamin Button of filmmakers. Rather than communicate truth or nuance, he merely takes after his movie’s infernal chess references, recreationally sliding pieces around a board.
Such is a tedious practice in close relation to the go-to shtick of Ben Stiller, who fills his performance as Columbus Circle high-rise manager Josh Kovacs with the usual maddening conversational volleys about nothing. He’s otherwise tasked to dole out exposition alongside Casey Affleck, another Ocean’s alum, who plays Charlie, Josh’s brother-in-law and the concierge of the building (which isn’t supposed to be Trump Plaza, but is). Two types among many, the noble Josh and clueless Charlie work with randy immigrant maid Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe), groveling bellhop Enrique (Michael Peña), and kindly doorman Lester (Stephen Henderson), all of whom are introduced in a workaday shuffle so fabricated the actors might as well have scripts in hand. The entire staff gets screwed over when Arthur (Alan Alda), the rich Wall Street suit living in the penthouse, goes down, Madoff-style, and brings their pensions with him (on the hush, Josh handed the pensions to Arthur for management). A plot ensues to break into the penthouse and steal Arthur’s rumored stash of emergency millions, and the stakes prompt Josh to seek help from Slide (Eddie Murphy), a thief with whom Josh has some sort of history, but who’s mainly consulted because he’s, you know, dangerous and black.
Thus, the film establishes its trickle-down socioeconomic trio, with The Man stiffing the working man who turns to the street man working the system. Tower Heist doesn’t have the smarts to properly exploit this scenario, and instead steers it to typical gags, with the macho colored guy schooling the safe-cracking crackers. There are, admittedly, some truly funny bits, especially thanks to Murphy’s verbose enthusiasm and a pathetic kitty-cat performance from Matthew Broderick, whose building evictee, Mr. Fitzhugh, is reduced to emasculated shambles after being fired from Merrill Lynch. But for someone of Murphy’s veteran status, there’s also something tragic about his stereotypical sidekick part, especially when you find out that the idea for Tower Heist was originally his, and that when no one jumped at his proposal for an all-black cast, he deigned to do the project as a supporting player (he maintained a producing credit). Watching him is as fun as watching Sidibe sex it up with a Jamaican accent, but neither enjoyment is without sourness (the Precious star deserves far more than being an unofficial extension of The Help).
Though no one could have predicted the newfound relevance Tower Heist would have amid the Wall Street protests, the movie nevertheless blows the opportunity to express something meaningful about current events. Undone by Ratner’s stunted sensibilities, the anger among the vengeful schemers feels sterile, even cuddly, while their foe is rendered with clumsy ambiguity (what’s implied with the did-he-or-didn’t-he nature of Alda’s performance isn’t misdirection, but bad direction). The movie is so benign that even the climactic set piece, complete with a Ferrari dangling hundreds of feet above the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, is watched in a detached fog, as if the credits had already rolled. The only provocation associated with the film, which effectively derails its whole working-class-victory message and would surely inflame the Occuppiers, is the preposterous sum Stiller pocketed to play the lead: a whopping $15 million.