Review: ‘Tower Heist’ Is ‘Ocean’s Eleven Lite’; Very, Very Lite

By  · Published on November 3rd, 2011

Josh Kovacs is, quite simply, outstanding at his job. Back-breaking early hours don’t faze the manager of the chi-chi Tower apartment building, one of the most glitzed-out residences in Manhattan, as he uses that time to beef up his knowledge of fancy cheeses and impressive wines in order to seamlessly recommend them to his high-end clientele. But Josh (Ben Stiller) isn’t just interested in impressing his residents (particularly penthouse owner Arthur Shaw), he’s also equally involved in the lives of his employees. Josh buys the Tower lifestyle hook, line, and sinker – obsessed with keeping his workers at the top of their game so as to provide the best experience for all Tower residents, an experience that will thus ensure longevity in the careers of all those Tower employees. It’s a machine that works, with Josh manning all the gears with a goofy grin on his face.

But toss a wrench in that machine, and everything grinds to a halt. Josh’s life works when everyone does their job and does it well – whether that job be operating one of the Tower’s elevators or being a gracious resident. When money man Shaw (Alan Alda) is accused of bilking his clients out of millions of dollars, it stings Josh enough (after all, isn’t Shaw just a Brooklyn boy like Josh?), but when the deeper deception comes to light, Josh’s work ethic and mental stability both go soaring out the metaphorical skyscraper window. Shaw didn’t just play the old financial cup game with his high-powered clients, he did it with his smaller accounts to, including the pension for, you guessed it, every single employee at the Tower. Tower Heist gets cracking when Josh goes positively bonkers and hatches a plan to avenge himself and his employees by stealing back millions of dollars from Shaw, paying no heed to the fact that Josh has no criminal expertise, that no one is sure where the actual cash money is, or that Shaw is currently under house arrest in the very same apartment that Josh wants to bust into. Crime is really not for everyone.

To help launch his crackerjack plan, Josh enlists a predictably ragtag team of merry idiots to rob Shaw blind. There’s Slide (Eddie Murphy), Josh’s neighborhood smalltime crime kingpin who Josh has known since he was a kid. Then there’s former Tower employees Charlie (Casey Affleck), Josh’s hangdog brother-in-law with a baby on the way, and Enrique (Michael Pena), a presumed “electronics expert” who apparently majored in turning things on and off. Add in Matthew Broderick as former resident Mr. Fitzhugh (tossed out because he was out of cash long before Shaw’s deception was uncovered) and Gabourey Sidibe’s safe-cracking maid Odessa, and Tower Heist slowly reveals itself to be some sort of Ocean’s Eleven for lightweights. Which, in this context, is not exactly a bad thing.

Tower Heist takes its sweet time to get to the meat of that titular heist, but once director Brett Ratner stops piling on backstory, the film is an undoubtedly fun and goofy ride, a film version of Attempting to Rob People for Complete Dummies. Stiller is at his best here, playing his trademark uptight-good-guy-pushed-to-the-limits to great effect, and Murphy is back to true comedic form. It’s Michael Pena, however, that emerges as Tower Heist’s MVP, the dumbest (and funniest) of the dumb bunnies launching a full-scale home invasion. Tower Heist hits the highest notes when the entire team is united in service to their plan, be it “training” in the mall by way of petty crime or navigating Lego-built scale models of the Tower. Ratner tries to trump up the film with slick sequences and a spot-on score from Christophe Beck, but even that can’t quite elevate the film beyond being just basically entertaining.

There are also innumerable logistical stumbles in the film, anathema to smart heist projects. Josh initially sells his plan to the team with a scene that’s been in heavy marketing rotation, you know the one, the “we’ve been casing the joint for years!” sequence. And though, yes, they most certainly have, knowing the comings and goings of all their residents and staff plays a surprisingly tiny part in the actual execution of the plan. Despite what appears to be meticulous planning (Josh’s home is wallpapered with photos and maps of the Tower, they even go so far as to procure the same style safe as the one Shaw owns, so on and so forth), the actual heist is mounted during a time when regular schedules are absolutely not a factor, when there are some giant outside distractions, and when Josh has apparently (it’s never quite explained) made someone lie about legal proceedings in a way that’s thuddingly obvious. In execution, the actual heist is enjoyable and flat-out fun to watch unfold, but it’s completely void of any intelligence that would mark it as a true heist flick.

Universal made some waves last month with their (now cancelled) plan to offer Tower Heist on premium VOD in limited markets over the Thanksgiving weekend. While that plan was a touch misguided, it does speak to the nature of the film itself – a family-friendly crowd-pleaser that the whole household can enjoy, even if doesn’t quite stick to the ribs like a turkey dinner.

The Upside: Tower Heist is often quite fun and quite funny, the sort of frisky action outing that Ratner remains adept at making. Maybe Universal wasn’t so off the mark when they wanted to present this film on PVOD for the Thanksgiving holiday for familial consumption and enjoyment.

The Downside: The film is equal parts too slick and too dumb, with an illogical scheme supposedly driving the plot and action. There’s more holes in the story than in some up-market Swiss cheese that Josh would likely learn all about on the radio, talk about like he knew it, and then use it to impress rich people.

On the Side: That one poster did not lie – a small dog does pop up at one point. Why? Still not sure.

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