Josh (Ben Stiller, from left), Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), Dev'Reaux… (David Lee / Universal Pictures )
"Tower Heist" is a modern comic fable about working stiffs (the serving class of a cushy NYC high-rise) stung by Wall Street excesses (the penthouse billionaire, the lost pension fund) trying to stick it to "the man" in some soul-satisfying ways.
So a downer that is an upper in an "Upstairs Downstairs" kind of way. But hey, we'll take the laughs where we can get them in these bleak times, right?
And with Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy top-lining this high-gloss house of cards, sometimes it works. Or at least that seems to be what director Brett Ratner and screenwriters Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson are counting on. But just in case, Ratner is in more of a rush than he ever was for the "Rush Hour" trilogy with Jackie Chan, trying to zoom right past all the gaping holes in the completely implausible plot. I guess the hope is that no one will notice…. You will, but then, you may not care (see "bleak times" above).
It is present-day Manhattan and the Tower is a tightly run, high-class condo managed by a tightly wound, attention-to-every-little-detail Josh Kovaks (Stiller). Josh has gotten so comfortable rubbing shoulders with the resident elites — particularly the top dog at the top of his game and the owner of the Tower's top suite, Wall Street guru Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) — that he sometimes forgets he's "not one of them."
The big be-careful-who-you-trust takedown comes when an FBI sting, led by Agent Claire Denham (Téa Leoni), reveals Arthur's billion-dollar fraud — which includes the Tower employee pension fund. In very short order Josh goes from disbelief to plotting revenge. Like all of these failed money guys, Josh figures Arthur must have hidden assets and he is determined to get his hands on them. Thus is this "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" caper born.
But it takes a thief. For that there is the questionable criminal mind of a local thug named Slide (Murphy). Murphy and Stiller are a good pair, with Murphy once again mainlining his ghetto-comedy crazy and Stiller suited up for another straight-man gig. These are the kinds of roles they both do best, and their face-off in the front seat of an out-of-control car is worth the price of admission.
There is also some help from the help, because a caper needs its share of misfits. Among them, Josh's very dense brother-in-law/concierge Charlie (Casey Affleck, hit-and-miss amusing), new elevator operator Enrique (Michael Peña, snap, crackle and popping) and Odessa, a Jamaican maid (Gabourey Sidibe, struggling with the accent, mon), with a recently evicted former broker, Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick, bedeviled and bewildered), brought in for some money-skimming tips. Before it's over, everything from Steve McQueen's classic red roadster to Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade will factor into the "never-forget-it's-a-high-rise" high jinks. Think dizzying rooftops, floor-to-ceiling windows, long elevator shafts and lots of reasons to look down.
The film, even when it slips into fiasco, has considerable polish with cinematographer Dante Spinotti's ("L.A. Confidential") clever eye and a crack creative crew that includes Kristi Zea ("Revolutionary Road") on production design and Mark Russell ("The Adjustment Bureau") responsible for some major palm-sweating visual effects.
But what the movie does best is the unintentional stuff. "Tower Heist" reminds you of the raw comic brilliance Murphy brought to "Saturday Night Live" all those years ago. With the exception of his hee-hee-haw Donkey in "Shrek," Murphy hasn't been this funny since "Beverly Hills Cop," the first edition. You come away wishing he had more screen time (especially since the movie, albeit in a very different form, was apparently his idea in the first place). Then there is Broderick's ability to get lost inside his own neurosis, which he does to charming effect with his failed stockbroker so broken you actually feel a flicker of empathy for the guy. And for Arthur, Alda resurrects some of the slick sarcasm that served him so well in "MASH," adding a lot more mean for his well-played bit of well-heeled scum — any resemblance to Bernie Madoff is surely intentional.
The movie also reminds just how many filmmakers misuse Leoni's comic talents. Her tantalizing cross between Katharine Hepburn's "Bringing Up Baby" smarts and Lucille Ball's fearless "I Love Lucy" physicality is totally misused here. Will somebody please get it right?
What the filmmakers do get right is using our collective economic angst for some comic relief. "Tower Heist" might not be a classic (it's not), but at least for a little while it will make you laugh instead of cry about the current state of affairs, which is more than you can say about a lot of things.