Friday, November 11, 2011

TOWER HEIST - Occupy This Movie?


- Tower Heist isn't terrible - it's mildly entertaining and plenty watchable. But it's also just numbingly average, never particulary clever, funny, or exciting. It's a thoroughly average effort from a cast that deserves better, and from a director - the now-infamous Brett Ratner - whose films tend to be workmanlike and serviceable - but devoid of personality or depth.

Often, Ratner has been able to sit back and rely on talent or f/x to make his movies work. I'm an unabashed fan of the Rush Hour movies, but those were just a great showcase for Jackie Chan and his incredible martial arts maneuvers. I'm even a huge defender of X-Men 3. I enjoyed the more comic-bookish tone, outlandish characters, and over-the-top action. In both the Rush Hour and X-Men flicks, Ratner to me displayed a real knack for staging exciting action set-pieces. But Tower Heist, lacking the awesomeness of a Jackie Chan or the visual pyrotechnics of the X-movies, is just sort of bland. In a heist movie, you need to have great characters, an intriguing setup, and a well-thought-out scheme. Tower Heist never really offers a compelling heist. And the action never really escalates to Rush Hour-levels of bigness. In short, the excitement-level just isn't there. Plus, this is a heist movie *and* a comedy - featuring big name talent like Eddie Murphy, Ben Stiller, and Matthew Broderick. You need jokes and setups to match that level of comedic prowess. And sadly, Tower Heist just isn't that funny.

I put a lot of blame on the script. This is one of those movies that just never really crackles or pops. The few laughs seem to come from sheer force of will, with guys like Murphy giving their all to make the mostly weaksauce jokes zing. I know a lot of people are calling this film the return of the old-school Eddie Murphy, but this feels like a warmed-over version of the guy from so many 80's-era comedy classics. The PG13 limitations of the movie keep Murphy from ever truly cutting loose. And overall, his character here has little that's distinguishing. He's a street criminal who's been in and out of jail, who somehow grew up with Ben Stiller's character, and who knows a thing or two about pulling off a robbery. Inherently, of course, Murphy's character makes little sense in the context of the story - how is a low-level crook going to be of service in breaking into a high-security safe that's hidden away in a Trump Towers-like complex? But that could have been overlooked if Murphy was given more to do, or more memorable moments. As is, I hate to say it, but he comes off less like the Eddie Murphy of old and more like a ripoff of Leon on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The rest of the cast is similarly overqualified and underutilized. Ben Stiller helps to anchor the movie, but he also feels a bit too reigned in. He goes from mild-mannered Hotel Manager to eager thief all too quickly. And I couldn't help but be distracted by the exaggerated New York accent he tries to pull off here. Matthew Broderick's character - a down-on-his-luck ex-Wallstreet banker - is just sort of a wet blanket here - he does his best with it, but it's just not that interesting of a character. Actually, the standout might be Casey Affleck as one of Stiller's underlings at the hotel. Affleck is always good in dramatic roles, but he shows some good comedic timing and has a lot of the movie's best scenes. Again though, it's crazy how much talent is squandered in this movie - and yet it's that level of talent that keeps the movie from being far worse. Alan Alda is the villain - a corrupt tycoon who, after roping the hotel employees into a money-absorbing investment scheme, becomes the target of Stiller's Robin Hood-esque robbery plan. And Alan Alda is awesome, as per usual. He single-handedly gives us a reason to root for Stiller and co., as he creates a delightfully slimy and hateable villain. But it's all Alda. The script gives him very few great lines or moments. But at least Alda has a lot of screentime. Meanwhile, you've got the great Judd Hirsch playing a barely-there side character. It's craziness. Michael Pena, so awesome in 30 Minutes or Less, does almost nothing. Tea Leoni is pretty good as an FBI agent investigating Alda, who takes a liking to Stiller. But after she steals a few scenes, it's disappointing that she is ultimately such a nonfactor. How about Gabourey Sidibe of Precious fame? Her character had a lot of potential to bring the funny, but those scenes you saw of her in the trailer? Yeah, those are basically her best moments in the film.

Getting back to the overall heist aspect of the film - it's just not very well constructed. We never feel like we quite know what the plan is - things just happen. There are so many plot holes that you begin to lose track. At the least though, I thought the movie might be redeemed by a great action scene or two. But there's really nothing to get excited about - no cool car chases, no intense shootouts, no big, exclamation-point moments. Eddie Murphy is a walking quip machine, but he's never given any of that great, action-movie dialogue that made movies like 48 Hours so fun. Hell, even Rush Hour had some fun back-and-forth between Chan and Chris Tucker. In Tower Heist, the witty banter is scarce, to say the least.

There's one key thing that Tower Heist has going for it (other than the stacked cast). And that one thing is that it's incredibly, surprisingly timely in terms of its overall plot and sentiment. There's definitely an initial rush that comes with the realization that the film is taking on the same themes and tropes of the whole Occupy Wall St. movement. And there's a thrill to seeing a sort of revenge story play out where it's essentially the screwed-over 99% vs. the money-grubbing 1%. And the movie is at its strongest when it's playing off of those emotions and giving us that underdog story, Stiller-as-everyman vs. Alda-as-fatcat. If the movie had taken things a step further and really played up that conflict in the script, then maybe it could have been more effective. But as is, it's a strong element of the film, but one that's hampered by this being an action-comedy. And it's too bad, because the film gets interesting when it's an underdog comedy about class warfare, but a lot less so when it's doing action, or heist stuff, or more over-the-top comedy.

TOWER HEIST is never offensively bad or anything, and it's intriguing in that it's one of the first movies I've seen that seems to directly address some of the current economic tensions going on. But, it's also just not that great of a film. Lots of good, funny actors essentially wasted thanks to a bland script (suffice it to say, it was definitely premature to call this any sort of a return-to-comedy-form for Eddie Murphy). Not much in the way of fun action. And the plotpoint at the heart of the movie - the big heist - feels rushed, slapped together, and not well thought-out by the writers or director. To use Ratner-speak, it's more of a whimper, not so much a "bang."

My Grade: C

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