Tower Heist has three objectives as a movie, and only intermittently succeeds at any of the three of them. It's simultaneously an Ocean's Eleven-like heist film, a zany crime comedy and an elaborate Bernie Madoff revenge fantasy.
The film has an impressive cast and is shot reasonably well by the much-maligned blockbuster director Brett Ratner (of the Rush Hour series), but it's never particularly funny. The crime plot plays like a less witty copycat of Ocean's and the Madoff part is simultaneously too cartoonish and way too tidy.
The plot consists of the staff of a luxury high-rise building in New York, led by hotel manager Ben Stiller and their plans to get even with a fat-cat crook who lives in their building. When Wall Street titan (Alan Alda), who lives in the penthouse suite, is arrested for carrying out a Madoff-like Ponzi scheme that took the employees' pension fund down with it, Stiller plots revenge by carrying out a robbery timed to take place during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.
The conspirators, in addition to Stiller, include an inexperienced elevator man (Michael Pena), a maid-turned-safecracker (Precious' Gabourey Sidibe) and a Wall Streeter-turned sad sack (Matthew Broderick, who I'm convinced was only cast because the story includes both an in-peril rare red Ferrari and a parade.)
As no one involved with the conspiracy has one iota of criminal experience, Stiller enlists a neighbor, petty thief (Eddie Murphy), to help out. Murphy is funny, even if this part won't make anyone forget any of his 1980s classics. Then again, had Ratner adhered to the reported original plan and cast Chris Tucker in the part, the movie would've been downright unwatchable. Murphy essentially plays a 25-years-older version of his character from Trading Places, another comedy about revenge against evil rich villains which had a much more witty and creative third act than does Tower Heist.
The movie can't help but draw comparisons with Ocean's Eleven. It even comes from the same screenwriter (Ted Griffin) and includes Casey Affleck as a tenth banana. Unfortunately, the comparison isn't favorable. Ocean's was great because the conspirators had a plan and it unfolded in a surprising and effective way, among other reasons. In Tower Heist, most of the characters are bumbling idiots. They seem to be making up large parts of the plan as they go along, and the ending is dependent on one huge, laughable coincidence after another.
Tower Heist also pales in comparison to another film – 2006's overlooked and underrated Smokin' Aces, in which numerous rival groups of hitmen fight with each other to break into a penthouse suite to kill mob snitch Jeremy Piven. That film had its problems, but it had a daring and anarchic spirit that Tower Heist is lacking, and it was also a lot funnier.
Anyone with even cursory legal knowledge will laugh at some of the liberties the script takes, starting with Alda believing he can count on friends in high places to help him walk on the charges, even after being arrested. Busted Ponzi schemes tend not to work that way and I'd imagine most lawyers would realize in advance that courts are closed on holidays.
Meanwhile, the tower of the title is clearly Trump Tower on Columbus Circle but it's never referred to as such. The movie was even originally called Trump Heist. Come to think of it, Tower Heist would've been more effective if Donald Trump had been the villain instead of Alda.
Sure, the Stiller-Murphy chemistry is impressive and the film is well-shot, but beyond that, there's really no reason to go see Tower Heist when you can watch Ocean's Eleven on TNT again.
The Silver Screen Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Roll Credits: Tower Heist
Directed by: Brett Ratner
Starring: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick, Gabourey Sidibe, Michael Pena and Alan Alda.
Length: 1 hour, 45 mins.