Tower Heist aims for the big score

But Murphy and Stiller end up with low returns.

Any admonition to suspend your disbelief for Tower Heist is not only useless, but ill-conceived. Because the planning and execution of the movie’s break-in job are so preposterous that expecting anything resembling adherence to our known reality is foolishness. And the red Ferrari made of gold that dangles from a steel cable outside a Central Park condo is just a taste of the levels of absurdity at work here.

Whereas Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films were meticulous to the point of being arid, Tower Heist plays fast and loose with its setup. That’s because it really isn’t about the score. Its only reason for being is to indulge in some large-scale payback’s-a-bitch wish fulfillment while providing a few laughs along the way. And to a limited extent, it gets the job done.

The premise for these shenanigans is that Wall Street trader Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) has bilked billions of dollars out of investors, including those blue-collar folk who work at the high-rise where he maintains a penthouse residence. Among the staff is the building’s manager, Josh (Ben Stiller).

When it becomes increasingly clear that the staff’s pension money will likely never be recovered, Josh hatches a plan to steal the filthy lucre he figures Shaw has hidden away in his apartment. To make it work, he puts together a crew consisting of former tower employees (Affleck and Pena), an evicted tenant (Broderick) and small-time crook Slide (Eddie Murphy).

The characterizations on display are familiar. Stiller is a slightly more-ballsy version of his stock character, the congenial go-along guy eager to turn the tables on antagonists before setting all his ducks in a row. Broderick is a nervous wimp, and Murphy plays the jive-talking crook who never steals anything over a thousand bucks so he can avoid felony charges. Murphy’s funnier than the previews indicated, because the film places his outbursts and constant mugging in context. As Shaw, Alda is smooth and smug, making his character worthy of contempt.

Small moments are amusing, such as Josh’s interaction with an employee studying for her bar exam. But nearly every chuckle betrays many more wasted opportunities, including a mall shoplifting test and a rooftop lock-picking sequence that never happens.

Tower Heist is an audience picture through and through, one that capitalizes on our shared economic moment. And I’ll admit to the satisfaction of watching service industry workers give the Madoff stand-in his comeuppance. The film’s also pretty consistently predictable, though I was a bit surprised when an expected conspiracy didn’t materialize.

Director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour series, Red Dragon) is usually a beat too quick with his comic timing in the quest to keep the pace snappy. Other areas of the film suggest rushed and sloppy editing. Ratner has an eye for fluid camera movements and bombast, reminiscent of John McTiernan. However, he’s not a storyteller so much as a slick, skilled framer of shots. Tower Heist isn’t in his wheelhouse, but someone could do worse than to give this man the reigns of a Die Hard entry.

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