Although the tower in question in the gimcrack action comedy Tower Heist is fictional, many New York tourists will recognize the aggressive nouveau-riche opulence of the building’s exterior as that of an actual Manhattan hotel condominium owned by aggressive nouveau-riche Donald Trump. The aesthetic pairing of The Donald and director Brett Ratner is a natural. This brassy production, an imitation Ocean’s 13½, features the name-brand talents of Ben Stiller (as an honorable Tower manager named Josh) and Eddie Murphy (as a con man called Slide) leading rookie thieves in an elaborate Robin Hood-style heist. Their target? The oversize penthouse of one Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a shady billionaire who keeps a rare 1963 Ferrari in his living room.
In other words, Tower Heist is the cinematic version of a Trump property: overblinged, eye-catching, and essentially tacky. For a movie that claims its heart is with the masses — the 99 percent! — there’s an awful lot of production-design admiration lavished on the trappings of the effing-rich 1 percent. (Ratner had specific ideas about which pedigreed modern-art reproductions he wanted on the walls.) Shaw is a fictional variation on Bernie Madoff: Entrusted with the retirement savings of the multicultural low-wage employees who keep the Tower running, he takes their money and ruins their lives. And so, rallied by egalitarian friend-to-all Josh — the guy takes the subway to work from Queens, so you know he’s a mensch — and hastily educated in criminal technique by Josh’s less honorable Queens neighbor Slide, these blue-collar little people rise up in triumph to steal their money back. By the moral standards of Occupy Hollywood, the crime earns an ethical thumbs-up.
You may think I am picking too much on what’s built to be a fun, diverting, New York-state-of-mind caper comedy — a joke-filled cavalcade that marks 50-year-old Eddie Murphy’s welcome return to the edgier stuff that made him famous. Alrighty, let’s talk about Murphy: He’s nowhere to be found in the first half of the movie! And he’s only there to illuminate selected scenes in the second: He’s like the spot lighting supplied by a big-ass chandelier in an ostentatious Trump lobby. That’s too bad, because when Murphy is on screen, his comedic vigor — reminiscent of Chris Tucker’s jive-talk mania in Ratner’s Rush Hour movies but with a blast of Murphy-specific danger — gooses the movie’s energy level. I’ve missed that guy.
But whenever Murphy wanders off, the movie’s pulse rate drops. Tower Heist is in effect two movies: One belongs to Murphy, the other to the rest of the cast. Josh’s drippy in-house recruits include Matthew Broderick as a broke ex–Wall Streeter and Tower resident (and the kind of fretful nebbish he perfected on Broadway in The Producers); Michael Peña as an uncouth rookie bellhop; and Ocean’s alumnus Casey Affleck as an unreliable concierge who happens to be Josh’s stressed-out brother-in-law. (The band of gentlemen credited with the story and screenplay includes Ted Griffin, who worked on Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 Ocean’s Eleven.)
Two female characters also join the increasingly frantic male-driven mayhem. (Here’s where I mention with an eye roll that, in what I hope is a quickly passing trend in male- as well as female-driven comedies, vaginas are briefly discussed, this time by Affleck.) Téa Leoni, who worked with the director 11 years ago in The Family Man, gamely plays a no-nonsense FBI agent with cute rough edges. And Gabourey Sidibe, the striking plus-size Oscar-nominated star of Precious, makes her Hollywood leap as a feisty Jamaican chambermaid who gets in on the heist action. (The girl’s got mad safecracking skills.) I don’t know why Ratner and cinematographer Dante Spinotti felt compelled to push the camera in close, as if gawking at Sidibe’s dramatic coloring and size. But then, I also don’t know why she wasn’t used more: Murphy never looks more alive and excited by a fellow actor — challenged to peak performance — than during ribald, flirtatious banter with Sidibe’s self-possessed working girl. She’s something new; Murphy in Tower Heist is something rebooted. Together they build something with more visual interest than any Trump Tower on any tourist map. C+