Movie Review: “Tower Heist”

Written by Melissa MacAulay November 18, 2011

Ridiculously conventional, wildly implausible, but better than you’d think…

My expectations for Tower Heist were not particularly high. At most, I expected a predictable yet somewhat entertaining mix of the usual Ocean’s Eleven-type caper plotline, with a bit of odd-couple, slapstick comedy from Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy. At worst, I feared a barrage of the usual Hollywood racism and sexism: according to the trailer, this is a film with a virtually all-male cast, in which the only black character is a jive-talking criminal.

Although Tower Heist undoubtedly has a touch of everything mentioned above, it managed to surpass my expectations by quite a lot. The heist-op plotline is so shamelessly unoriginal that it is self-deprecating. This film refuses to take itself seriously, and as a result, the audience feels as if they can stop criticizing, and just enjoy the laughs (of which there are surprising many).

Josh Kovacs (Stiller) works as the building manager for an elite, luxury, high-rise condominium building. The penthouse is occupied by a billionaire businessman, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), who is one day arrested for fraud, and put under house arrest. It comes to light that Shaw has swindled Kovacs (among others) out of 20 million dollars – money that was meant to fund the pensions of the maids, doormen, and service people working under Kovacs.

Feeling responsible for the new-found misery of his now ex-employees, Kovacs gathers a together a team to carry out a robbery of Shaw’s penthouse, where he suspects the 20 million dollars is hidden. Concierge Charlie (Casey Affleck) is the indignant nay-sayer; bellhop Dev’reaux (Michael Peña) is the (self-proclaimed) engineer; failed (and recently evicted) Wall Street investor Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick) is the brains; chambermaid Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe) is the resident locksmith; and Slide (Murphy) is, of course, the criminal mastermind.

Once again, Tower Heist makes no attempt whatsoever to deviate from the ridiculousness of the traditional caper-heist storyline. Slide attempts to train the team of outcasts into hardened thieves by having them shop-lift $50 worth of merchandise from a mall, and learn how to pick a lock with a bobby pin. As underwhelming as all of this sounds, you’ve just got to trust me – watching Eddie Murphy hand out bobby pins on a rooftop is surprisingly hilarious.

The actual robbery of Shaw’s penthouse is, of course, ridiculously drawn-out and wildly implausible (but who was expecting something believable?). Insider tip: if you ever want to completely incapacitate all security measures taken by a downtown Manhattan luxury high-rise, just offer them birthday cake!

All that is needed now, of course, is a love interest for straight-man Kovacs. Throughout the beginning of the film, hard-headed FBI agent Claire Denham (Téa Leoni) seems to fit the bill: after all, she is the only character in the whole film that meets Hollywood’s female-love-interest-checklist: a.) under 45, and b.) less than a size 8. Denham and Kovacs could have easily provided the film with the seemingly requisite romantic element (The robber and the cop, together in the end! Who saw it coming?). Refreshingly, however, Tower Heist (somewhat) breaks from tradition with this (and only this) respect.

Although the film was surprisingly funny and enjoyable, I have one last lingering concern: is Tower Heist racist? The racial element is obvious from the beginning, upon meeting the crew that work in the entrails of the building, as opposed to those who live in the luxury above. Odessa, an immigrant from Jamaica, is looking for an American man to marry; Manuel, the security guard, may as well be accompanied by a shrieking John Cleese; Miss Lovenko, a Russian immigrant is working and studying full-time in order to complete her studies; and Dev’reaux, the bellhop, is offered the position only because he is part Cherokee, and so is needed to meet hiring quotas. As Shaw likes to point out, they are “working stiffs, clock-punchers, easily replaced, and erased.”

Given the frankness of the racializing of these low-end workers (and their depicted poverty), I am tempted to think that this was a deliberate attempt to incorporate something real into this otherwise completely far-fetched story. Although I still find the depiction of Slide’s character somewhat problematic, the working stiffs are at times remarkably real and insightful. Recovering from an attempted suicide after losing his entire life’s savings to Shaw, Lester the doorman observes:  “All those years on the job, and truth is… people can open their own doors.”

All-in-all, Tower Heist proved to be quite a decent film, with some genuine laughs and memorable characters. As long as you aren’t expecting the ground beneath you to break, you could do much worse than go see this movie.

My Rating: 7.0/10

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About Melissa MacAulay

Melissa MacAulay

Melissa is a PhD student in philosophy. When she is not busy publishing wildly successful books and making earth-shattering contributions to her field, she enjoys travelling, eating chocolate, playing with pugs, and writing film reviews.

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