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How could anyone in Hollywood have known, as the current batch of movies went into development, that at least three different films about the greed and ruthlessness of the wealthy few and its devastating impact on the masses—the 1% and the 99%—would hit theaters more or less simultaneously in the middle of the Occupy protests?
This weekend’s caper comedy Tower Heist, starring Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Matthew Broderick, Michael Pena and Gabourey Sidibe as the 99 percent and Alan Alda as the 1 percent, comes on the heels of In Time, a sci-fi action movie starring Justin Timberlake as one of the expendable have-nots and Amanda Seyfried as one of the privileged haves.
In both of these movies, have-nots set out to redistribute the haves’ illegitimate wealth by robbing them and giving back to their victims. The line “Is it stealing if it’s already stolen?” crops up twice in In Time, but it could just as easily have been used in Tower Heist. A third film, the Wall Street drama Margin Call, dramatizes the 2008 financial meltdown. (I haven’t seen Margin Call, but my “Reel Faith” cohost David DiCerto reviews it on tonight’s episode, in which we cover all three of these films. Watch live at 8:30pm Eastern.)
Tower Heist is the most unassuming of the three, a straightforward vigilante-justice fantasy about the victims of a Bernie Madoff-type con man conspiring to rob their victimizer when it looks like he may get away with his crimes and with at least $20 million in ill-gotten gains.
Arthur Shaw (Alda as yet another charming sleazeball) is living the high life in a penthouse apartment atop a Columbus Circle high rise called The Tower when the FBI catches up with him. The Tower is played by New York’s Trump International, making Tower Heist Hollywood’s latest Donald Trump product placement movie, after Transformers: Dark of the Moon, in which Chicago’s Trump Tower was the Decepticons’ base of operations, and Mr. Popper’s Penguins, which referenced Trump’s Central Park involvement with Trump Wollman Skating Rink and Tavern on the Green.
When it turns out that Shaw has taken the entire staff of The Tower for their retirement packages—and that authorities may not be able to nail Shaw, or to recover millions of dollars he’s hidden somewhere—Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller), the recently fired general manager of the building, puts together an unlikely conspiracy to break into The Tower and find the missing money.
Because no one involved has any criminal experience, Josh turns to a petty thug named Slide (Eddie Murphy), with whom he has a slight history. Why Josh thinks Slide is some kind of criminal mastermind is unclear, since the only items on Slide’s résumé we’ve seen are a) randomly cursing at Josh for being on the wrong side of the street in a suit, b) fighting with his girlfriend and c) getting arrested. The arrest indicates he may be an actual criminal of some kind; it doesn’t suggest that he’s a successful one.
Is it stealing if it’s already stolen? Well, no, and if civil authorities can’t recover the stolen property, there’s a case to be made that the Tower Heist operation is basically morally legitimate. Along the way, though, the conspiracy crosses a number of moral lines. To prove their seriousness, Slide makes the conspirators steal $50 worth of merchandise apiece in a shopping mall. During the operation, a guard is knocked unconscious, and one of the conspirators jeopardizes countless lives by driving a vehicle straight into a parade.
Comedic fantasy can sometimes get away with treating morally problematic situations with a wink. Tower Heist is certainly a fantasy, with one dumb conceit after another. If only it were funnier, its various issues might go down easier. The movie overpromises with a running chess metaphor, suggesting elaborate complications and elegant payoffs, but what Tower Heist delivers is more like a game of checkers that takes forever to set up and never gets very interesting. (One of the five credited writers contributed to Ocean’s 11, but this is no Ocean’s 11.)
It’s easy to blame director Brett Ratner, he of the Rush Hour movies and the disappointing third X-Men installment. It’s easy because it’s probably warranted. As a director, Ratner is like a bus driver who will get you from point A to point B, rather than a tour guide who knows how to make the trip interesting, or when to stop the bus and let you get out and take pictures. Oh, there are moments, but even the climactic complications are only sporadically funny. It’s also the kind of movie that thinks that obscene or anatomical references are inherently funny, whether or not a joke has been made.
While Murphy’s outrageous fast-talking performance could be called a return to form, his part is sadly underwritten. Slide is barely a character at all—he’s really just schtick. His best moments are opposite Gabourey Sidibe, who plays a man-hungry Jamaican maid with a knack for safecracking, and Broderick, an unemployed former Merrill Lynch investor. When we first meet Broderick, whose young children don’t understand that they’re about to be evicted from The Tower. Later we learn that his wife has left him and taken the kids. His character is too tragic to be in a movie this feather-light. That his climatic stunt is only mildly amusing when it needed to be gut-bustingly funny only adds insult to injury.
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