Tower Heist tells the story of Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) — the General Manager of an elite Manhattan apartment building — who, along with a motley crew of other building staff (including Eddie Murphy and Casey Affleck), plots to rob Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) — the Bernie Madoff-esque denizen of the resident penthouse — as payback for Shaw’s squandering of the building employees’ pension fund.
I attended a recent screening of Tower Heist with one burning question on my mind: Does Eddie Murphy still possess the comedic genius and onscreen charisma necessary to carry a major Hollywood film, and will this particular flick let him do it? After a series of seemingly odd career choices in recent years – ranging from a string of forgettable family fair, to the unbearable Norbit (possibly the worst film I’ve ever seen in a theatre, and I’ve seen Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, people) – the question was not an unreasonable one. The answer turned out to be yes, and no. Yes, I’m persuaded that Murphy still has an interesting, enjoyable, riotous career in front of him (provided he finds the right material), based on his performance here. But no, this film doesn’t give him that much of a chance to showcase his skills. He is at best a minor character, providing a few good laughs here and there, but not given enough screen time to steal the show. And this was disappointing, for Murphy at the top of his game surely towers above Stiller at the top of his.
Eddie Murphy aside, the other question that preoccupied me involved Gabourey Sidibe, the heavy-set African-American star of 2009’s Precious. Unlike most other reviewers, I found Precious rather pretentious, an overwrought attempt to be “gritty” that ultimately failed to move me as much as it did turn my stomach. But I’m happy to report that Sidibe does well here, as the heavily-accented African hotel worker seeking a husband who will solve her precarious immigration status.
Finally, let’s not forget Matthew Broderick, who like Murphy, seemed regrettably underutilized. I wish he’d been given more screen time and more dialogue, and while there are some arguably fun Ferris Bueller homages late in the film, they don’t make up for what I was missing. Also, Broderick hasn’t aged well, to put things bluntly. When Cameron told Sloane that Ferris could do anything he puts his mind to, it makes you wonder why Ferris didn’t put his mind to holding on to his youthful looks. (Cheap shot. Sorry).
I liked much of the Dialogue, as well as the basic structure and pace of the film. I liked the timeliness of its subject matter and its collection of quirky oddball characters. I liked Alan Alda a lot, and Ben Stiller was OK. I liked the repeated chess metaphors that infused the Alda-Stiller banter, and I felt they were witty and appropriate.
But Broderick’s and Murphy’s (especially Murphy’s) underutilization to one side, I had two major gripes with the film. As you’d expect, Stiller and the gang’s eventual heist isn’t as straightforward as they imagine it will be; there’s a twist, in which what all concerned imagine to be a boatload of cash turns into something else entirely. I won’t spoil it for you, but I confess I sort of hated it. It was gimmicky, implausible, and inconsistent with the claim that Alda must have stashed away liquid wealth for a rainy day. It’s also the plot twist upon which much else follows, some of which was ridiculous on its own terms, but even if it hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have fully enjoyed it regardless, because the whole plot twist turned me off from the get-go. Second, while I didn’t much care for the falling out both the Eddie Murphy and Casey Affleck characters had with their other partners-in-crime, I absolutely reject the inexplicable reconciliations both achieved at key junctures in the story. These issues marred what for me would otherwise have been a more enjoyable cinematic experience.
On a somewhat minor note, I think the film could have also been improved with a couple of additional scenes, showing Stiller and company recruit some of the other building employees into their inner circle. These scenes could have been played for good laughs; instead, we just learn that certain characters are “in on it” without any set up that explains their recruitment or involvement.
Overall, I rather enjoyed this movie. It gets a mild thumbs up from me. But while moderately entertaining, it wasn’t great cinema. It certainly could have been better. And again, make no mistake, this is not an “Eddie Murphy” movie. This is a Ben Stiller movie, with Eddie relegated to the role of minor character. I look forward to the day when Murphy is permitted to carry a major motion picture again.