“Tower Heist,” the new comedy starring Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy that is far funnier in the trailers than it is onscreen, doesn’t seem to believe that the magic exists in the first place. The movie cheats the audience out of a heist movie’s greatest pleasures – the thieves aren’t particularly clever or lucky, the heist planning is slipshod and patchy – and doesn’t replace them with either full tilt comedy or a sufficiently deep look at average citizens who get cheated by the rich. It’s a little bit of everything that together adds up to nothing at all.
The plot, which has been pretty well-summarized by the movie’s trailers, follows the staff at a super-fancy condo building who lost all their money to the Bernie Madoff-type currently under house arrest on the top floor. Manager Ben Stiller is actually the reason everyone lost all their money, having asked the Madoff-copy to invest the money back when he was still being thought of as a financial genius. Madcap crime antics ensue, but only after some seriously depressing scenes that include at least one attempted suicide and Stiller’s entire arsenal of wounded/hangdog looks.
The extended emphasis on how much trouble everyone’s in might have worked in a thoughtful indie film about the plight of the working man, but this is a Brett Ratner film (the guy who did the “Rush Hour” movies). I expect ludicrous plot elements from Ratner – a car hanging off the side of an enormously tall building, for example, a moment that almost lives up to its scene in the trailers – and I accept that he’s probably not capable of the deep, clockwork-precise con required for great heist movies.
But it’s possible to make a great, purely slapstick heist movie, with the thieves hanging out a window only inches away from the cops and guards tied up with big Christmas bows. Unfortunately, Ratner didn’t go that route, either, with Stiller using the earnestness from his “Night at the Museum” movies rather that his ridiculousness from “Zoolander,” and too many scenes making our crew look tragic and pathetic rather than charmingly absurd and incompetent. Murphy tries, going all-out with the swagger, but he’s too much on the edges of the movie to save it.
Alan Alda makes a surprisingly smarmy villain, striking an excellent balance between affable and evil. Unfortunately, that’s the kind of villain you want in a serious heist movie, and a little more scenery chewing here might have helped up the movie’s humor not get quite so lost.
In the end, though, no one manages to steal more than a few laughs, and the movie never delivers on any of the promises it tries to make. The movie “Tower Heist” could have been is still sitting in a vault in someone’s imagination, waiting for a better crew to run off with it.