Movie review: Tower Heist

There aren’t many people happy right now with the men and women who work on Wall Street. Tower Heist, directed by Brett Ratner, is a movie attempting to cash-in on that hostility by having a group of “average Joes” get back at the benefactor of a high-stakes Ponzi scheme.

Ben Stiller plays Josh Kovacs, a luxury apartment manager who unwisely asks tenant and Wall Street investor Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) to manage the pensions of the apartment staff. When Shaw is arrested on fraud and then let go, a confrontation with Shaw leads Kovacs and two other employees to be fired. Kovacs then decides he will steal a $20 million stash in Shaw’s suite, and assembles a motley crew to do the job.

Alda plays Shaw with colour, as opposed to a black and white villain that might be expected in a lighthearted movie like this. It’s the fault of the screenplay that Shaw goes over the top in the second act, revealing himself to be not just greedy but a misanthropic tyrant who desires to destroy the lives of everyone around him.
The actual tower heist is, for the most part, a disappointment. There are explanations of the building’s highly advanced security system, and how difficult it is to access Shaw’s suite. We are led to believe there will be a clever caper involving a mastermind plan and execution, but the mechanics of the heist are straightforward and lack finesse. The strongest scene in the movie is when, during the heist, three characters find themselves dangling off the side of the tower. The scene is for laughs, but manages to create some good suspense as well.

Aside from Kovacs and a maid who can crack safes, I never understood why any of the characters were necessary to the heist. Eddie Murphy plays “Slide,” a petty crook recruited by Kovacs for his “skill” at robbery. The fact that Kovacs has to first bail him out of jail doesn’t speak well to that skill. The movie fills up some runtime by having Slide engage the soon-to-be thieves in pointless exercises, designed to build robbery skills, but which essentially serve no purpose in robbing Shaw. Mathew Broderick has a role as a former Wall Street hotshot who can multiply and divide large sums in his head, but whose talent never becomes useful during the heist.

I don’t think the filmmakers intended this perspective, but the thieves are cut from the same cloth as Shaw. The plan is to secure the lost pension money, but Kovacs and his partners go beyond that, stealing over $45 million and distributing the money purely amongst themselves.

Also, the lack of legal regulation that created the environment for Shaw to swindle investors is left totally unexamined. The movie doesn’t concern itself with such matters and maybe most audiences won’t either.

Most of the comedy is owed to Murphy and Stiller. Stiller is enough of a comedic icon to get an audience to smile with just a look. Despite serving as producer, Murphy only has a supporting role. Nonetheless, whenever Murphy is onscreen he manages to get a few chuckles. The movie is never all that funny, but there are consistent laughs throughout.