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Movie Review: TOWER HEIST Doesn't Take the Crime Comedy to New Heights

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In last year’s New York Times profile piece, “Forget the Art House; He’s Making Blockbusters,” director Brett Ratner assesses the action-comedy Tower Heist within the context of his filmmaking oeuvre, branding it “the culmination of all his skills, from directing to script development to talent relations…[and] an unapologetic bid for a mass audience that he sincerely calls ‘my best film, as far as my maturity as a filmmaker is concerned.’”

After viewing the finished film, I can easily say that never has such high regard seemed like the faintest of praise.  Tower Heist is unquestionably Ratner’s finest film, but when your body of work includes three Rush Hour movies, the second worst X-Men entry, and the Red Dragon remake that no one wanted, you set an awfully low bar to clear.  Tower Heist seems ready-made for TNT or the USA Network; it’s slickly made, rarely insulting, and utterly without substance.

That last point wouldn’t be such an issue if Ratner weren’t aping a story that’s been told before, only better and with more art.  I submit that Tower Heist‘s direct antecedent, the first Ocean’s Eleven movie, accomplishes what Ratner doesn’t quite manage in his:  Ocean’s Eleven may be a Twinkie, but it’s gourmet-quality, with tasty star turns and wonderful dialogue and a central con that locks into place like a Swiss watch.  Of course, its director—Steven Soderbergh—is a bonafide master using his ample skills to goose an otherwise formulaic caper (see also: Out of Sight, Haywire), while Ratner is a journeyman testing his limits with fluff.

Ratner has the right pieces.  A talented ensemble cast (Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Michael Peña, Téa Leoni, Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick, Gabourey Sidibe, and the wonderful Alan Alda); a script boasting credited contributions from Ocean’s scribe Ted Griffin and uncredited ones from The Squid and the Whale‘s Noah Baumbach; and a ripped-from-the-headlines setup that finds Stiller’s penthouse housekeeper orchestrating a robbery of Alda’s one-percenter/Bernie Madoff-surrogate.  You can see why Ratner felt this project was his Mecca—from top to toe, it’s designed to attract every demographic.

And for an hour, you think Ratner has tapped into something.  Stiller isn’t playing another variation on his Meet the Parents schlub; his Josh Kovacs is convincing as a bright, flinty hired hand shaken to his core when he finds that Alda’s Arthur Shaw stole his pension—as well as the pensions from the rest of the penthouse’s staff.  Better still is Alda, who has gotten so good at couching depravity behind an avuncular twinkle, and Ratner keeps the conflict between the two men at a rolling boil.

We want to watch Shaw go down, and so we’re with Kovacs and his crew in the early goings, through both good (Broderick’s wry desperation, Murphy’s whip-sharp hostility making the most of a comparatively tiny part) and bad (Peña’s constant mugging, Ratner’s affinity for broad ethnic stereotypes).  The film isn’t as funny as the previews indicated (only Murphy scores the big laughs), but it’s genial and watchable and reasonably exciting.

Where Ratner bungles his work is in the execution of the main robbery, and from here on out in the review, THERE BE SPOILERS.  While you watch Stiller and Murphy go through with their plan, the movie glides along.  Ratner and editor Mark Helfrich maintain a good pace, cutting between multiple vantage points—Stiller and Murphy in Shaw’s penthouse, Broderick a few stories below, Peña the point man on the roof, and Leoni’s FBI agent slowly figuring out Stiller’s plan—for maximum impact.   We get one virtuoso set piece that involves dangling a Ferrari high above the NYC Thanksgiving parade, and an understated denouement that satisfies emotionally without pulling one very big potential punch.

The ending seems professional and sharp (maybe I owe Ratner the Director more credit) until you start thinking about it, and then Tower Heist just deflates.  For a film that tosses on the complications in the final third, it neglects the most interesting ones.  Stiller goes into the heist without former collaborators Affleck and Murphy; Affleck gets promoted into Stiller’s old position and threatens to call the police to stop Stiller, while Murphy’s greedy thief decides to screw Stiller over and take all Alda’s money for himself.  This element should make for greater tension, except Ratner and Griffin don’t develop the idea any further. Affleck and Murphy get big scenes where they announce their new agendas, and fifteen minutes later, they’re back being good guys.

Further issues: if Stiller makes such a big deal about not being able to enter the penthouse himself (he was fired for vandalizing Alda’s car, you see), how come he is able to enter the penthouse himself?  Can an elevator still move normally with a sixteen-ton car on top of it?  Why is Téa Leoni in this movie, considering a) the romantic subplot she has with Stiller goes nowhere, and b) her character doesn’t ultimately threaten Stiller’s plans?

Tower Heist can’t stand the scrutiny, so buyer, beware; if you shut your brain off entirely, it’s a solid B, B-minus experience.  Applying any thought afterwards drops that score down a letter.

Way to go, Mr. Ratner!

I have no such issues with Universal’s Blu-ray/DVD combo pack; the HD picture is flawless, and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track delivers an aggressive-but-clear sound mix.  Even the features maintain a high quality, with good, informative behind-the-scenes chatter.  We get a commentary with Ratner, Helfrich, and Griffin; a thorough Plotting Tower Heist documentary; deleted/alternate scenes (including two different endings, one of which brings closure to the Stiller/Leoni relationship); and a funny gag reel.  Only the video diaries and The Music of Tower Heist materials underwhelm.

I just wish the feature could play with the big boys.  Ratner’s competent, engaging direction only goes so far; if he pushed to make this “mass audience bid” as good as it could really be, we’d have a true Best Film, and not one with a critical asterisk.

Tower Heist is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s page listing.