Review: ‘Tower Heist’ a Great, Star-Studded Caper — on Paper

Brett Ratner–directed heist comedy looks great and is impeccably cast — too bad about the bland characters and hollow heist

In the new action-comedy “Tower Heist,” Alan Alda plays a Bernie Madoff–ish financier who promotes his business acumen and lives a flashy lifestyle, complete with penthouse apartment and world-class art collection, but winds up being a total fraud.

The character winds up being a walking metaphor for the movie itself, which boasts a terrific cast, gorgeous cinematography and a caper-flick score that drives the action. Too bad that when it’s over you realize that the characters aren’t interesting and the titular heist wasn’t all that thrilling.

Arthur Shaw (Alda) lives atop the Tower, New York’s priciest and most exclusive high-rise, where a devoted staff sees to the needs of its demanding tenants. Running that staff is Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller), who’s so devoted to his job that he seems to have little time for any fun apart from the online chess games he’s always losing to Shaw.

Shaw gets arrested for fraud, and Josh is forced to tell the staff that he’d given their pension fund over to Shaw to invest for them. FBI special agent Claire (Téa Leoni) tells Josh that they didn’t find any money in Shaw’s apartment, but Josh remembers that Shaw had installed a hidden wall safe years earlier.

With blind faith that Shaw’s emergency nest egg is locked in that safe, Josh decides to plan a robbery, using the knowledge that he and his brother-in-law, building concierge Charlie (Casey Affleck), have of the Tower to get the money out under the nose of Shaw and the FBI agents watching over him while he’s under house arrest.

On paper, this has all the makings of a great caper comedy, from a timely revenge-on-the-rich-guy plotline to terrific New York locations shot by Dante Spinotti to a jazzy Lalo Schifrin–esque score by Christophe Beck to a snappy comic ensemble (which also includes Eddie Murphy as Josh’s childhood-acquaintance-turned-petty-thief, Judd Hirsch as a humorless building manager, and Gabourey Sidibe as a maid with a talent for safe-cracking).

Where “Tower Heist” goes asunder is in Brett Ratner’s direction and the script by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson — the greatest caper movies give us intricately planned break-ins where each element of the scheme falls into place like the tumblers of a lock, but this one gets shamelessly sloppy.

We’re told, for instance, that Thanksgiving (when the robbery is taking place) is the busiest day of the year at The Tower, with multiple dinner parties going on and catering trucks coming and going all day; why, then, are the hallways and lobby so empty of anyone besides building staff? Security guards are diverted not by the thieves’ planning, but by sheer coincidence. And why would Matthew Broderick’s sad-sack financial analyst, who just got evicted from the building, be recruited for the heist when he brings no special skills to the table?

“Tower Heist” promises far more than it delivers; the movie executes a car chase through the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (NBCUniversal synergy at work, no doubt) and works the hubbub of the event into the plot, but then all it does with the parade is give Stiller and company a moment to sneak into a door while everyone’s watching Snoopy.

Not that the script does any better with the human element — sure, everyone involved in the crime has a motivation, but who are they? Murphy’s and Sidibe’s characters flirt for five seconds, for instance, but then it’s never mentioned again.

It takes a cast this talented to flesh out such meager characterizations. The MVP here would have to be Michael Peña, who brings his uniquely screwball comic skills (the ones that made him the only thing worth seeing “30 Minutes or Less” for) as a newly hired elevator operator who becomes integral to the robbery.

The hope was that “Tower Heist” would mark Murphy’s return to form, putting him in the kind of action-comedy role that originally brought him fame in films like “48 HRS.” and “Beverly Hills Cop.” And while he doesn’t embarrass himself here, it just all feels a little rote and familiar by this time, just like Stiller’s tightly wound Type-A guy.

The top-quality ingredients of “Tower Heist” make it, at least, painless to sit through, and the movie does pull off a few action set pieces that are vertiginously exciting. It’s just too bad that Ratner isn’t craftsman enough to keep this soufflé from collapsing.