“Tower Heist” is powered by sheer charisma. There’s little to recommend this implausible, over-the-top caper comedy other than the magnetism and likability of its stars and supporting players. Most of the actors — even in relatively small parts — have had starring roles in feature films or TV shows. Despite several unexplained plot twists and a few well-timed deviations from standard gravity, this tale of Robin Hood-style comeuppance has the makings of a minor hit.
In terms of marketing, the studio couldn’t have picked a better time to release a movie in which a larcenous plutocrat gets a taste of his own medicine. Alan Alda plays Arthur Shaw, a money manager modeled on Bernie Madoff, who is arrested and charged with absconding with his clients’ funds — including the pension fund of the building staff of The Tower — the elite high-rise on Manhattan’s Columbus Circle where he resides.
Eddie Murphy helped invent the action comedy genre with his turn as Reggie Hammond in “48 Hours.” He plays a different kind of hard case here — a burglar named Slide who isn’t quite as streetwise as his hostile exterior might suggest. Ben Stiller does what he does best — playing the flat, uninflected straight man doing a slow burn. (He’s played different versions of the part in movies as seemingly disparate as “Meet the Parents,” “Starsky & Hutch” and “Greenberg.”)
When Shaw is placed under house arrest in The Tower’s penthouse — which includes a rooftop pool tiled to look like a $100 bill — building manager Josh Kovacs (Mr. Stiller) decides that he’s going to try to get back the pension fund plus interest by stealing Shaw’s secret hoard of cash. He recruits Slide, who is a neighborhood connection, along with concierge Charlie (Casey Affleck) and Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), a resident in The Tower who is facing eviction after serious financial setbacks. After the requisite training session, the group embarks on one of the more idiotic plots in the history of heist movies — imagine “Ocean’s Eleven” with a serious concussion. To his credit, director Brett Ratner manages to create an illusion of dramatic tension, despite a lack of real suspense about the outcome. He is a master of pacing. While “Tower Heist” is predictable, it’s never exactly boring.
The only true delights here are to be found a little further down the credits list. Tea Leoni is funny as a boozy FBI agent assigned to the Shaw case who takes a liking to Kovacs. Nina Arianda, fresh from her brilliant portrayal of the ditzy Carol in “Midnight in Paris,” shines briefly as a Tower employee who spends most of her time studying for the New York state bar exam. Most unlikely of all is Broadway actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, known for his work in the plays of August Wilson. He lends a crucial sense of dignity and tenderness to the role of Lester, an aging doorman who had been relying on Shaw to invest his life savings separate and apart from The Tower’s pension fund. Finally, Gabourey Sidibe, star of “Precious” is sweet and funny in her role as a Jamaican maid with a talent for safecracking. These performances elevate “Tower Heist” from pure dreck to a watchable film.
TITLE: “Tower Heist”
CREDITS: Directed by Brett Ratner. Written by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson.
RATING: PG-13 for occasional profanity
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS