Breaking Even, by Kyle Anderson
Heist movies are a tough thing to pull off effectively. It’s not just that the characters are robbing someone; it’s seeing how clever they are in pulling it off. The best examples of the form (Rififi, Le Cercle Rouge, The Italian Job, Ocean’s Eleven, etc) all involve a huge amount of the audience seeing the preparation for the heist so that when something inevitably goes wrong, we know what should have happened and are then even more impressed when they find some way to get away with it. Brett Ratner’s new film, the self-explanatory Tower Heist, has the requisite planning scenes however the payoff comes from nothing we actually see happen on screen. It’s a strange thing to see a heist being pulled off successfully without actually knowing any of what is going on.
Tower Heist revolves around the employees and tenants of The Tower, a super-high class, million dollar apartment building in Manhattan’s Central Park West. The name of the building is simply “The Tower” and from the title of the film we know that someone is going to heist it. That someone, chiefly, is Josh Kovacs, played by Ben Stiller, who is the building manager of the tower and runs the most courteous, attentive staff in all of New York. He ensures that every need or want of the building’s extremely wealthy clientele is not only attended to but anticipated and prepared for. Other employees include concierge Charlie (Casey Affleck) who is Josh’s brother-in-law, Jamaican maid Odessa (Precious’s Gabourey Sidibe), and close-to-retiring doorman Lester (Stephen McKinley Henderson). These are people who do the best they can and do so with a smile on their face, until the Tower’s most high profile tenant, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) is arrested for defrauding people, in the process losing the entire staff’s pensions through unwise investing.
Finding out from a saucy FBI agent (Tea Leoni) that Shaw will likely get off and the money will be lost forever, Josh gets Charlie, new employee Dev’Reaux (Michael Pena), and bankrupt evicted tenant Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick) to help him devise a plan to find Shaw’s hidden nest egg somewhere in his penthouse apartment using their extensive knowledge of the building. To do this they need someone with a criminal mind and Josh employs the help of petty thief and former childhood “friend” Slide, played by famed Eddie Murphy impersonator Eddie Murphy. Wouldn’t you know it? Things don’t go as planned and Josh and co are forced to improvise and find some way to get away with the whole thing without getting arrested by the FBI.
Every character in the story serves a purpose, whether simply for comedic effect or for more substantial things, and the pieces of the heist plan seem to work quite well, however too much of the actual caper depends entirely on chance and luck. Also, the scenes where they’re actually planning (generally ridiculously) the crime focus more on the incompetence of the characters or the humorous exchanges they have and less on the ins-and-outs of the plan itself, which is generally the best part of heist movies. We see them casing the building and taking notes, but we don’t actually know what any of it means. There’s also things that happen, quite ingenious things in fact, that we don’t know how or when they happened and come out of nowhere. The script was written in part by Ted Griffin who penned Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, so Tower Heist comes from good stock, but it lacks a good amount of the setup and a great deal of the plausibility of the earlier film.
The acting in the movie is pretty good, with the two exceptions being, unfortunately, Stiller and Murphy. Ben Stiller, for me, doesn’t play a very good straight man, certainly not of the tough guy variety. He’s good at the over-the-top silly stuff and the put-upon schlub stuff, neither of which are in this role. He just isn’t a badass, sorry to say. And, hey, remember when Eddie Murphy was relevant? It’s hard to at this point. Here he plays himself playing a stereotypical loudmouth gangsta. It’s schtick we’ve seen before and it gets old almost immediately. Something that goes for both of their characters is the vast discrepancy between them being completely out of their depths and then suddenly being masters of heisting things. They’re chumps one minute and pros the next and it doesn’t quite gel.
The supporting cast is much stronger with Michael Pena delivering almost all of the funniest lines. Broderick and Leone are quite funny as well and Judd Hirsch delivers in a fairly thankless role as The Tower’s boss. Alda’s turn as the bad guy is good only because he’s a good actor. Being an amalgamation of every Bernie Madoff and Enron-type rich guy, his character as written is only one shade more subtle than Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. However, Alda’s having fun with the part without going over the top. His change-motion from being smug but friendly to all-out bastard is incredibly fast, but again that seems to be a function of the script and not of Alda himself.
This is a big Hollywood production and Ratner knows how to shoot locations. While it takes a lot of liberties with the plot in the last act, it’s never stupid or insulting to the audience. You know where it’s heading from the very beginning, and the “big twist” is about as telegraphed as something sent from Western Union, but it’s nevertheless pretty enjoyable to see it unfold. As far as heist movies go, this one doesn’t crack the top ten, but it’s not a complete failure and you’ll likely crack a smile once or twice. To further damn with faint praise, it’s about as good as a movie called Tower Heist starring Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy directed by Brett Ratner can be.