Tower Heist Dir. Brett Ratner

[Universal Studios; 2011]

Styles: star-studded super production
Others: Casino Royale (67), Ocean’s 11 (either), The Towering Inferno

“What is it with these titles? Studios may think that they can palm us off with flat, sour recitations of what their products contain, but, back in 1975, no one would have paid to see a Spielberg film called ‘Nasty Fish.’” —Anthony Lane, on the movie Bad Teacher, in The New Yorker

Anthony Lane is probably the sharpest and funniest film critic alive, and while I don’t mean to equate myself with him in this review, it’s impossible to resist quoting him after seeing a movie called Tower Heist. Really, what is it with these titles? Or rather, what is it with studios that broadcast the shittiness of their movie before the public has even had a chance to see it? “Don’t bother. We put as little effort into making it good as we did naming it. We just grabbed some hack and a bunch of stars, then someone took a few words out of the plot synopsis and slapped them on a poster. Voila, here’s your entertainment.” In a way, this kind of laziness is more honest: with a title that could have been drooled out by a coma patient, what do we expect? And therefore, who can we blame but ourselves that we went to see it?

What we’d be seeing is the latest in a long-running Hollywood tradition that includes How the West Was Won, both versions of Around the World in 80 Days, both versions of Ocean’s 11, the first version of Casino Royale and (appropriately) The Towering Inferno: a star-studded blockbuster event movie with a flaky, razor-thin sheen of respectability and a list of script doctors that reads like the minutes of a Screen Writer’s Guild meeting. In Tower Heist, Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy play an ill-conceived variation on the tenuous white/black partnership (sometimes allied to defend the law, sometimes to break it) made popular in the 70s and 80s. Stiller is Josh, the manager of a high rise full of condos for the rich and/or super rich, who loses his job after he loses his temper after Arthur Shaw, a Madoff-esque billionaire (Alan Alda), swindles the staff of the high rise out of their pensions. Josh decides to strike back by stealing a lot of Shaw’s money (rather than stage an Occupy High Rise), but he’s hindered by his lack of experience committing crimes.

Luckily, everyday on his morning commute, Josh encounters a jive-talking hustler named Slide (Murphy). When he comes across Slide being slammed onto the trunk of a cop car and cuffed, he realizes he’s found the right man to aid his caper (for a guy ready to steal in the name of the working stiff, Josh has very little trouble pegging an urban black guy as a thief just because he’s being arrested). Anyway, using a cache of funds that must be hard for a recently fired worker to summon, Josh springs Slide out on bail and finances a sting on the high-rise, the aim of which is to stage a break-in and righteously take back $20 million in cash from the billionaire’s penthouse.

Of course, this movie isn’t serious when it touches on the Current Economic Crisis (it uses layoffs and Wall Street swindlers as window-dressing, no more important to the movie as a whole than Stiller’s nebbishy dithering or Murphy’s slick, lightning-fast line delivery). So rather than have Stiller, Murphy, and their crew of Everyman burglars (Casey Affleck, Michael Pena, and Matthew Broderick, all of whom are otherwise talented) stick the billionaire with some kind of juicy ironic comeuppance, the way that James Bond might force an oil-rich billionaire to choose between drinking petroleum and dying of thirst, Tower Heist has them bungle around the titular building, abruptly changing their mission every time their horrible planning backfires.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with star-studded mega-productions that cynically capitalize on current events. If well-made, those movies can be the next best thing to an intelligent commentary on the world: a fun respite from it. But Tower Heist is not well-made. It was directed by Brett Ratner, a hack in auteur’s clothing who likes to think that his slick, styleless filmography (The Family Man, Rush Hour, Red Dragon) constitutes an oeuvre. Ratner is clumsy even when it comes to clearly conveying a plot from the beginning of a movie to the end, so forget looking for consistent characters from one scene to the next. Out of nowhere, just as Tower Heist’s motley crew of laid-offs is about to jump into action, two of its key members defect (in different directions) and begin working against the goal of the heist. A few scenes later, after some comic escapades, both members rejoin the crew as if they had done nothing to betray their friends. Ratner might tell you that both men represent the desperation sometimes felt by the working stiff who needs to make a buck even if it means selling out his friends. Or he might not, because even a comment as specious as that would indicate that Ratner had put thought into the meaning of his movie, when everything about it — from its lurching pace to its indifferent framing — tells you he didn’t.

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