Slickly directed by Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, etc) and featuring an ensemble cast, this clever comedy thriller is the best comic crime caper movie since the first Ocean’s Eleven.
A group of working stiffs who work in menial jobs in one of New York’s most luxurious high rise apartment buildings learn that one of their tenants has ripped off their pension fund. Former high flying stockbroker Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), the Tower’s richest tenant, has been arrested by the FBI over fraudulent trading and embezzlement, and is placed under house arrest while awaiting trial. Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) is the pleasant and popular manager of the apartment block, and he hatches a scheme to rob Shaw’s apartment and get their $20 million back. He enlists the reluctant help of his brother in law Charlie (Casey Affleck), new elevator operator Enrique (Michael Pena), and the mousy Mr Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), who has just been evicted from his apartment. Josh is intimately familiar with the routines and habits of everyone in the building and believes that this mission is indeed possible. But the three know little about criminal behaviour, and have no idea how to rob Shaw, who is under 24 hour FBI protection and living in one of the most high tech and secure buildings in the city. All they need is a little help from someone well versed in the criminal lifestyle. Josh approaches Slide (Eddie Murphy), a local thief, but he turns out to be an incompetent, motor mouth punk and untrustworthy.
Tower Heist benefits from a tight and well-written script from Ted Griffin (Ocean’s Eleven, Matchstick Men, etc) and Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can, Rush Hour 2 and 3, etc). Both writers are familiar with the tropes of the comic crime thriller, and the build up to the actual heist itself is handled well. Ratner builds up the tension superbly. The robbery itself, when things do not go smoothly, is thoroughly enjoyable, and there is an elaborate sequence involving elevators and a very expensive classic car. Some suspension of disbelief is required to go along with the basic premise. Ratner has cleverly incorporated some actual footage of the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade into the climactic robbery sequences.
He also manages to draw a wonderful performance from the ensemble cast, including the normally over the top and grating Murphy. Murphy shows an uncharacteristic restraint here, resulting in one of his best performances for a long time. His performance as the motor mouthed petty crook harks back to his earlier career, with films like Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop, etc, before his enormous ego took over. Stiller plays another riff on his familiar screen character, and it’s a pity that we didn’t get more scenes with him and Murphy firing off each other. And we have gotten so used to seeing Alda as the saintly Hawkeye in eleven seasons of M*A*S*H that we forget that he can play ruthless villains well (The West Wing, etc). He plays the slimy, sarcastic villain of the piece well, although he does bring some touches of that same smug arrogance that he occasionally brought to Hawkeye.
Tea Leoni is also good, but underused, as Claire Denham, a tough FBI agent in charge of watching over Shaw. And despite her high profile, Oscar-nominated turn in Precious, Gabourey Sidibe has found good roles hard to come by. She has fun here as Odessa, a Jamaican housemaid who agrees to participate in the robbery, and the scene in which she and Slide bond while opening a safe is filled with delicious (and apparently ad-libbed) innuendo.
A great cast in fine form and some tight direction from Ratner ensure that Tower Heist is one of the better comic caper films, and a must see film over the holiday season.