A buddy comedy? With Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy? Directed by Brett Ratner? I can hear your eyeballs cartwheeling in your head.
But Tower Heist is that uncommon thing, a big-budget Hollywood holiday movie that really is funny. Oh, the titular heist (carried out during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade) is a shambolic affair, and some promising glimmers of romance never pay off, and the final plot development is a deflating miscalculation. But the laughs prevail, thanks to a cast that's sharp beyond the call of PG-13 entertainment.
This is not really a buddy movie, either—not in the machine-tooled manner of the old 48 Hrs. films, or the Rush Hour series (which Ratner also directed). It's a buddies flick, with even the top-billed stars, Stiller and (more than you'd expect) Murphy, fitting themselves smoothly into the picture's smartly assembled ensemble.
The plot arises out of our current economic disarray, but the movie wisely avoids message-mongering. Stiller plays Josh Kovacs, the manager of a Manhattan luxury hotel with a tower wing of deluxe apartments inhabited by wealthy permanent residents. Foremost among this coddled crowd is Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a Wall Street investment titan so loaded he keeps a vintage Ferrari on display in his living room. (He's at pains to point out that the car once belonged to Steve McQueen.) When an FBI team led by Special Agent Claire Denham (Téa Leoni) suddenly arrives at the hotel to bust Shaw for fraud, Kovacs and his staff discover that their company pension account, which had been under Shaw's supervision, is now entirely empty, and they've been left penniless. So when it looks as if Shaw might beat his rap—and when Agent Denham suggests that he could have millions in stolen funds socked away in his apartment—Josh and his now-impoverished staffers decide to break into the place and steal the money back.
Josh's ad-hoc heist team is of course intimately familiar with the hotel's layout and personnel routines. Straitlaced Charlie (Casey Affleck) is the concierge, bumbling Enrique (Michael Peña) is the bellhop, and randy Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe) is a room maid (and, fortuitously, a locksmith's daughter as well). Also onboard for the caper is another tower resident, the down-on-his-luck Wall Street drone Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), whose company has gone belly up and who is overstaying eviction from his swell digs. ("I went to Yale 20 years ago," he says glumly. "Now I'm a squatter.")
Naturally, none of these people have any criminal expertise, so it's decided to bring in a real felon, a fast-talking con called Slide (Murphy) as a consultant. Murphy is the film's most valuable asset. After years of brainless Klumps and Norbits, this oddly misguided comic finally reaches back to retrieve the motor-mouth hostility that made him a star in the first place, and he brings a blast of energy to every scene he's in. (Whipping out a plastic Baggie containing a dead roach at one point, and suggesting a visit to a local restaurant, he tells his startled accomplices, "Lunch is on me!")
Murphy's virtuoso bluster doesn't overbalance the movie, though (well, not entirely), because the rest of the actors are in such nimble form. Stiller, carefully restrained here, is notably generous in allowing room for his fellow players to shine—especially Broderick (the po-faced soul of existential defeat), Leoni (an undervalued comic actor who doesn't work nearly enough), and Sidibe (who provides some irresistibly sly line readings). Even Alda, that icon of low-key affability, demonstrates an unexpected mastery of purring condescension.
If only the actual heist were a little more believable (and coherently staged), and if Stiller and Leoni finally got together at the end (their growing flirtation just dribbles away), Tower Heist might have been a mainstream classic. Given the usual run of lobotomized seasonal movie fodder, though, it's hard to be much else but happy about what we get.
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be out on November 8th from St. Martin's Press. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.