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Tower Heist a Perfectly-Timed Caper

<i>Tower Heist</i> a Perfectly-Timed Caper

DVD Release Date: February 21, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: November 4, 2011
Rating: PG-13 (for pervasive language and sexual dialogue)
Genre: Action-Comedy
Run Time: 104 min
Director:  Brett Ratner
Cast: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck, Alan Alda, Tea Leoni, Michael Pena, Gabourey Sidibe

Previews for movies like Tower Heist often leave audiences with an understandable “hopeful skepticism.” Ads are funny, the movie is loaded with talent and it seems to have all the right pieces . . . or maybe the trailer has the best laughs while the rest of it falls flat. Bottom line, it could go either way.

Thankfully, Tower Heist goes the right way. This movie is a lot of fun and, in the era of Occupy Wall Street, ends up being a perfectly-timed, wish-fulfillment caper for the 99%.

The earliest tip to its potential comes near the end of the opening credits: “Screenplay by Ted Griffin & Jeff Nathanson.” Writers of (respectively) Ocean’s Eleven and Catch Me If You Can, this duo has a proven track record of adding intelligence and wit to what could be routine genre pictures. While this collaboration may not quite match their previous heights, it certainly reflects smart, spirited storytellers who refuse to be lazy (even as they have a blast stretching the bounds of plausibility).

Sure, they often throw logic out with one hand but do so while bringing in humor and invention with the other. It’s consistently clever and occasionally inspired with a script that never wears thin or fades, always coming up with nice little twists, snags, and effectively poignant character moments right when the story needs them. Yes, this never would happen. This never could happen. But it’s fun how it all happens here.

Heist pictures are often by nature complicated. Consequently, the choice by the screenwriters and director Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand, the Rush Hour trilogy) to keep the premise simple and clear was the first of many smart decisions. 

The blue-collar service staff of a New York residential high-rise has fallen prey to a ponzi scheme by their wealthiest tenant, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda, The Aviator).  With retirement plans completely wiped-out, tower manager Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller, Little Fockers) rounds up a diverse but motley crew of fellow victims—along with a professional thief (Eddie Murphy, the Shrek films)—to steal the millions of dollars Shaw has locked away in his top-floor penthouse. It’s a tale as old as Robin Hood, with Stiller’s Kovacs as the twenty-first century Prince of Thieves and the rest his Merry Men.

There’s a lot of players and relationships to establish, and the film takes about the first twenty minutes to do so before even getting to the inciting incident. In other films, such a lengthy setup would feel laborious and leave viewers wishing the flick would just get to the action already. That we are engaged the whole time speaks well to the writing and the cast; it’s fun getting to know these people. We don’t need a relentless high-concept to be entertained, but when that plot does kick in things just get better.

Thankfully the plot doesn’t overrun the characters; their traits, quirks and dynamics remain front and center the whole time, even fueling events. While each one fits archetypal roles, none are reduced to lifeless cogs in the script’s plot machinery.  The diversity, too, doesn’t feel like demographic affirmative action. Each actor defines the purpose and presence of his or her character in this large ensemble. Hardship and struggle is not taken for granted by fleeting or perfunctory exposition; time is taken to build legitimate empathy.   

Murphy hasn’t been this funny in years (his Slide plays like one of Axel Foley’s bizarre ad-libs), Alda relishes the villain role in subtle rather than scenery-chewing ways, and Tea Leoni (Ghost Town) proves she’s better-suited at being a tough-and-funny dame than a conventional ingenue. Many other recognizable stars—old and new—complete the well-rounded cast, all anchored by Stiller who is best when exercising his unique gift for bringing high comic energy to a straight-man role.

As director, Ratner isn’t merely well-versed in action tropes but is a self-avowed fanboy and student of blockbusters  from a generation ago. It should come as no surprise, then, that in Tower Heist he delivers a slick homage to ‘80s-style Action-Comedy (as does Murphy—that era’s icon—as both co-star and producer) in a very old-school way. 

Many action scenes today are an incoherent mess of editing and special effects, but Ratner’s approach is a well-staged mix of energy and style that never gets lost in some headache-inducing hyperkinetic hodgepodge. Even the music score takes a traditionally big, brassy approach that makes it all feel more classicly cinematic rather than instantly disposable.

The climactic heist itself takes turns we can’t see coming and even grows to truly preoposterous proportions, but by that point we’re hooked in and ready to go on whatever ride they want us to take, no matter how far-fetched. We care, too, which goes a long way when your brain needs to look the other way.

Though the comic tone is broad and appealing, parents should know it’s often vulgar. Profanity is pervasive throughout, and sexual dialogue ranges from crude words to stongly suggestive innuendos and even literal references. A total absence of f-words is the only explanation for the film’s PG-13 as many parents will feel it is closer to the R-rated ‘80s comedies it clearly emulates.

Even with its strengths considered, no one should go in expecting this to be more than what it is. In fact, the film’s greatest strength is in not trying to be more than what it is. Instead, it’s great at simply being what it’s trying to be—the kind of entertainment that only Hollywood can do. When people go to the theater looking for that, Tower Heist is the kind of movie they’re hoping for.


  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: Some drinking at a bar; comical inebriation.
  • Language/Profanity: Pervasive. The s-word is the most constant offender, but the full array of swear words (with the exception of the f-word; there are none) are on display throughout as well. The n-word racial slur is used. The Lord’s name is taken in vain a handful of times, both as GD as well as Christ’s name. Sexual words and conversations are also common (see below).
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: No sex or nudity, but crude sexual slang (for breasts and genitalia) peppers some conversations. Sexually suggestive exchanges/flirtations occur on a couple of occasions. Crude references to arousal, stimulation and fondling are made. A sexual spanking is referred to, as is sex in a bathroom. A discussion of lesbians occurs, but not in a graphic way.
  • Violence: There is an implied suicide attempt of a man walking in front of a subway (but not seen). There are fisticuffs, gunplay, etc. but never visually graphic and always in a comedic context.