Brett Ratner is basically Michael Bay without the ambition. Both specialize in frat-boy-oriented movies full of noise, explosions, and references to testicles. But while Bay wants to make GIGANTIC movies that often wind up being awful, Ratner just wants to make BIG movies that usually end up mediocre. If you have a lot of resources but maybe not a ton of talent, Ratner's path might is the one to take. People will tend to ignore your films rather than hate them, and every now and then you'll come up with something modestly enjoyable, like Tower Heist.
Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy are billed as the stars, but don't be misled: Stiller has the lead role, followed by an ensemble that includes Murphy. Stiller plays Josh Kovacs, the dedicated building manager of a luxury Manhattan apartment building called the Tower (modeled after Trump Tower, where the exteriors were filmed), home to wealthy people who rely on people like Josh to open doors for them, run their errands, and bring them room service. The residents are friendly to "the help," though one should not mistake them for actual friends.
In the penthouse is Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a congenial Wall Street type who, it turns out, is also a Bernie Madoff type being investigated for securities fraud. Among the people he allegedly bilked are Josh and the other Tower employees: as a favor to the Tower, Shaw had agreed to handle their pension funds. Now Shaw is under house arrest, his penthouse treated like a prison, guarded by FBI agents while the agent in charge of the case, Claire Denham (Tea Leoni), tries to figure out where all the money went.
Josh thinks a significant chunk of it might be hidden in Shaw's apartment, so to reclaim what is rightfully theirs, he and some of his fellow Tower employees plan a heist. Nobody knows the building's nooks and crannies and lapses in security like they do. As Josh puts it, "We've been casing the place for a decade, we just didn't know it!" Among his cohorts are the building's concierge, Charlie (Casey Affleck), who's also his brother-in-law; Enrique (Michael Peña), the new elevator operator; Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe) the maid; and a resident, Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), who worked for Merrill Lynch up until the crash and is now penniless. Since none of them have ever committed a burglary before, they enlist the aid of Slide (Eddie Murphy), a petty criminal from Josh's neighborhood.
Looking at the skeleton of the story, you must admit it's not a bad idea for an action comedy, and though the movie has been in various stages of development since 2005, it couldn't have been released at a better time than now, when anger toward the unscrupulous segment of the 1 percent is at a fever pitch. Leave it to a goofball like Ratner to accidentally stumble into relevance.
Not that the movie has a lot of Big Ideas to express, of course; it's a story about scrappy underdogs getting revenge first, a commentary on our current economic woes second (maybe even third). Stiller, Affleck, Broderick, and Peña have a lively rapport, alternating between fussing over the Ocean's Eleven-ish details of the heist and being afraid of it. Tea Leoni has some funny moments as the FBI agent, including a fine bit of drunkenness. Sidibe, in her first role since the astonishing Precious, gets to have some fun for once, though the less said about her Jamaican accent, the better.
And what about Eddie Murphy? There are a few scenes where his fast-talking hoodlum character is funny, sharp, and interesting enough that you think, "Wow, Eddie Murphy is back!" The story doesn't give Slide enough of the focus to allow Murphy to really stretch his atrophied comedy muscles -- the character basically becomes expendable -- but it's a relief just to get a taste of the old magic again.
All of this being said, we can't overlook the many, many things wrong with the film, most of which probably stem from its convoluted path into production. Written first by Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, reworked by almost a dozen others, and ultimately credited to Ted Griffin (Best Laid Plans) and Ratner regular Jeff Nathanson, the screenplay bears all the scars and bruises that such a process would suggest. You can see the remnants of discarded plot devices. The fact that Josh, Slide, and Shaw all grew up in Astoria, Queens, is mentioned as if something is being set up, but there's no pay off. A romance between Josh and the FBI agent is hinted at and disregarded. There are clearly scenes missing, like the one that would have explained how a particular ruse involving a rescheduled court date was perpetrated.
That's not to mention the huge holes in the details of the story, the things that just don't make sense or are literally impossible. Without giving anything away, I'm talking about heavy things that must be moved, and which are surely much heavier than the movie would have us believe, and whose very existence opens a whole new range of questions. The movie goes through the paces of a twisty heist caper, often letting us think something has gone awry only to reveal it was all part of the plan. What it misses, though, is the part where it goes back and explains how it was part of the plan, and how Thing X got moved to Location Y while the cops were chasing Person Z.
I'll go ahead and blame Ratner for that, just because. But I also have to give him credit for overseeing a film that made me laugh and held my interest more than it should have, given how sloppy it is. Call it an acceptable bit of B- work from a C student.