If Tower Heist feels a lot like Ocean's Fourteen, that's not entirely accidental. After all, both this movie and the Ocean's pictures involve an all-star crew of crooks attempting to rip off a wealthy mark that has wronged them. Beyond that, the movies share a screenwriter (Ted Griffin, who wrote Ocean's Eleven, though not the sequels) and a co-star (Casey Affleck). But here's the way to tell them apart: the Ocean's adventures were directed by Steven Soderbergh, while Tower Heist is a Brett Ratner joint. That means that the jazzy, inventive visual palette that Soderbergh brought to his movies has been replaced by a workmanlike style that's professional without being particularly interesting. The heist at the center of Tower Heist also pales in comparison to the elaborate schemes that Danny Ocean and his accomplices pulled off. Their plans were ridiculous enough to be believable -- this one is just ridiculous. Still, thanks largely to the cast (some of them anyway), Tower Heist isn't the botch that Ratner's last comic thriller, After the Sunset, was. It's a serviceable bit of studio fluff that keeps your eyes, if not your brain, occupied for 100 minutes. (Too bad the studio didn't follow through on its initial plans to release the film on VOD three weeks into its theatrical run; the movie will likely play much better at home on your TV screen than in the theater.) Here's how the individual members of this crew rate:
The Brains: Josh Kovaks (Ben Stiller):
As evidenced by his committed, go-for-broke turns in movies like Greenberg, Tropic Thunder and Zoolander, Stiller is a character actor trapped in the body of a mainstream movie star. Give him an offbeat character -- particularly one with a dark edge -- to play and he excels. Make him the straight man in a traditional star vehicle and he's often as generic as the movie itself. (The first Meet the Parents is an exception to this rule.) As the manager of a luxury Manhattan high-rise that decides to rob its richest tenant after he defrauds the staff of their pensions, Stiller may be the central star of Tower Heist (never mind those posters that give him and Murphy equal billing -- Stiller gets far more screentime) but he's its least interesting character. His performance is perhaps be summed by the inconsistent Queens accent he adopts for the role: sometimes he's there, but mostly he's not.
The Thief: Slide (Eddie Murphy):
In order to design and execute the perfect robbery, Josh enlists the services of his neighbor and not-so-master-criminal Slide, who is essentially what 48 Hrs.' Reggie Hammond would be like if his decibel level been permanently set to 11. (Never shy about stealing from... uh, excuse me, paying homage to other filmmakers, Ratner essentially re-stages Hammond's introduction from 48 Hrs. when we first encounter Slide in jail.) At this point in his career, Murphy can play this kind of role in his sleep, and he doesn't exactly strain himself to make Slide all that different from any of his past cinematic criminals. At the same time, he engenders so much audience goodwill -- even after movies like Norbit and Holy Man -- that all he had to do was pop up onscreen for the crowd I saw the film with to start cracking up. And in contrast to Stiller's sullen turn, Murphy has a live-wire energy that makes his material play much funnier than it actually is.
The Nerd: Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick):
If Murphy is basically doing a variation on Reggie Hammond, than Broderick's character -- a former Merrill Lynch employee that lost his 1% status and, subsequently, his family and luxury apartment -- resembles Ferris Bueller had Illinois' savviest high school skipper gone into the financial game and lost all his cool. Broderick is even introduced lounging around in a Bueller-like robe and the film's climactic set-piece finds him helping his accomplices to lower a cherry-red '60s Ferrari out the window of the high-rise, an epic drop looming below. Like his fellow '80s-era veteran, Broderick isn't doing anything here that he hasn't done before, but at least he's a reliable source of laughs.
The Wild Card: Charlie (Casey Affleck): Although Affleck and Scott Caan had limited screentime in the three Ocean's outings, they were always highly amusing as bickering siblings-in-crime Virgil and Turk Malloy. Affleck in particular has a deadpan wit that makes him a far more effective comic performer than his older brother Ben. So it's a shame that Tower Heist doesn't really take advantage of that, stranding him in the more serious role of Stiller's brother-in-law who signs up for the heist only to jump ship when he's offered Jake's former job as manager of the apartment building (his wife is pregnant, you see, so they need the steady income). After setting him up as a potential obstacle, the movie lacks the courage to turn him into a full-fledged bad guy, which is a shame as it robs Affleck of a dimension that might have made his character more interesting, if not necessarily funnier.
The Smooth Operator: Dev'Reaux (Michael Peña):
If Tower Heist had an MVP award, it would go to Peña, who has evolved from his breakout role in the Paul Haggis drama Crash into one of the most reliable comic scene-stealers working today (insert standard joke about Crash actually being a comedy here). He's done great work in films like Observe and Report and 30 Minutes or Less and in Tower Heist he more than holds his own against Murphy's showboating as happy-go-lucky fast-food employee-turned-bellhop, Dev'Reaux. Time to give this guy his own comedy vehicle.
The Safecracker: Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe):
Sporting a Jamaican accent and a badass glare, maid/master lockpicker Odessa is about as far from Precious Jones as you can get and Sidibe clearly relishes the opportunity to play a character in a lighter vein. She's especially good when sparring with Slide, who clearly isn't man enough to handle her. It's not a particularly sizeable part, but Sidibe does show there's more to her than suffering horrific physical and emotional abuse at the hands of Mo'Nique.
The Arresting Officer: Agent Denham (Téa Leoni): Leoni has been on the verge of superstardom since headlining that old NBC series The Naked Truth back in the '90s. And while she's nabbed parts in some successful, high-profile movies -- Jurassic Park III and Fun With Dick & Jane to name a few -- she's never really joined Hollywood's A-list. In recent years it seems as if she's stopped trying to attain that goal and that's actually improved her performances. Cast as the brassy FBI agent that indirectly helps set Jake on his path from upstanding citizen to master criminal, Leoni is relaxed, funny and charming. She actually seems to be having fun instead of playing at having fun.
The Heavy: Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda):
A heist movie is only as good as its mark and Alda is one great mark. A Bernie Madoff-like swindler, Shaw initially comes across as a charming, erudite tycoon, but if you cross him, he'll waste little time cutting you down to size. Alda does a nice job playing against his grandfathery appearance, not to mention our collective pop-culture memory of him as the Korean War's most dedicated medical doctor. Even though he's thoroughly despicable, you can't help but root for Shaw just a little bit, simply because Alda is so damn good at being bad.
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