Wednesday, November 9, 2011

“Tower Heist” – Featuring Ben Stiller and Donkey from Shrek.

With the economy in the toilet, Bernie Madoff in the news, and Occupy fill-in-the-blank sweeping the planet, there couldn’t be a better time to release a movie about a bunch of working class folks robbing a rich, financier a-hole. Especially with the recent release and disappointment that was Margin Call; a movie that wanted to demonize Wall Street and their CEOs, but failed to grip the audience. I had my reservations going into Tower Heist, considering its release date and less than inspiring previews, but it was a pleasant surprise that could only get better if some people really did try to rob a Wall Street executive.

Before I get into the movie, there were two things that happened at the screening that I thought were bad omens and caused me to prepare myself for a crapfest. The first was when a woman walked in, guiding her blind friend. Yes, a lady actually took a blind person to a movie. I know there are arguments to be made for this – she can still hear a movie that is a comedy, maybe she can see somewhat – but she was blind enough to need a cane and this just seemed wrong to me. I felt this would be like taking a deaf person to a concert and I just can’t think of how this okay. The other thing was that they showed previews (which is unusual for an advance screening) and the third preview was for Tower Heist. You read that right, they showed a preview for the movie we were about to watch. To make matters worse, they let the entire preview run, realized what happened, tried to fix it, and started the same preview again. To their credit, they stopped it almost immediately, but this is not a good sign for any movie. But, like I said, this movie surprised me almost as much as Hot Tub Time Machine in that I was expecting the worst and got something that was better than average.

Ben Stiller plays the same character he always plays, this time as the manager of an elite apartment building who inadvertently loses the staff’s pensions after entrusting it to the building’s richest tenant, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), for investment. The staff learns this news after the FBI, led by Tea Leoni, arrest Shaw and reveal that he has employed a Ponzi scheme and been stealing money from people for years. Leoni also mentions that they are still looking for Shaw’s hidden money, which is estimated to be $20 million. Stiller soon learns that Shaw had even stolen the doorman’s life savings, claiming to be investing it after the doorman went to him for investment help. After smashing Shaw’s Ferrari and getting fired, along with two other employees (Casey Affleck and Michael Pena), Stiller decides that they are going to find the $20 million and steal it. Included in the plot are a former tenant of the building (Matthew Broderick), a maid who can crack safes (Gabourey Sidibe), and Stiller’s neighbor (Eddie Murphy), who is also a thief. From there, the rest of the film is the team methodically plotting out their heist, then, executing the plan. What makes it fun are the little plot twists and hijinks along the way.

What I liked about the movie is that it could have gone stupid in several places, but restrains itself and sticks to its original course. Example: Stiller and Leoni teeter on the edge of forming a relationship, which could have easily dragged Leoni into throwing away her job (and the principles that come along with being an FBI agent) and participating in the heist. Instead, she remains steadfast in performing her job and pursues Stiller and his gang when the law calls for it. Too many films fall into the trap of the law enforcement conveniently disappearing, but here, they never do. Instead, they are actually accounted for as part of the plan. Another example is the characters themselves. Comedies tend to include at least one character who is basically a dipshit and good for nothing more than cheap jokes (the token/fat stupid guy or Rob Schneider in every Adam Sandler film), but that person was nowhere to be found this time. Each of the characters was equally important and the movie fails if you pull any of them out.

Since the story was very tight, my only real criticism is that Eddie Murphy has spent way too much time as Disney’s bitch. If you close your eyes during his scenes and just listen to him deliver his lines, you will not be able to picture anything other than Donkey from Shrek. You could argue that his character was supposed to come off this way, but it made him less believable as a criminal and more believable as a clown (or a donkey). Luckily, the other actors perform their roles very well, so he doesn’t overpower any of them, and more importantly, doesn’t influence Stiller into overacting (which he is very prone to doing).

By the end of the film, I was completely surprised by what turned out to be a very competent movie. The end leaves a little something to be desired, but at least goes along with one of the running themes of the movie. Perhaps the most kudos should go to Alda, who delivers a slimy character that accurately portrays all of the corporate bigwigs that have caused the giant mess that we are all in, including their staggering level of greed. He was so good I’d even argue that the blind woman in the theater could see it.

Rating: It’s worth your money, but ask for two dollars back; we are still in a recession you know.

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