The best performance in Tower Heist comes not from its most bankable stars Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, rather it’s the nervously underplayed schlub Mr. Fitzhugh, an out-of-work stockbroker played by Matthew Broderick, who’s channeling parts of Bob Newhart and parts of Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion. Director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) tends toward broad comedy, but the funniest bits by far are Broderick’s subtle squeaks of concern.
There’s a scene early on when he’s being evicted from his apartment. The living room is completely empty save for two tents. Broderick explains to the building manager that he’s sold all the furniture. “I told the kids we’re going green,” he gives a resigned shrug, “my kids aren’t very smart.”
The manager is Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller), who’s been working at the building for years and is the golden boy of its owner Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a Madoff-inspired Wall Streeter who, we learn, has taken the employees’ pensions and either stolen them or made some really bad investments (the movie never really makes it clear, but since he’s rich, he’s automatically bad, I guess). The Feds, led by the sexy Claire Denham (Tea Leoni) naturally swoop in to cart off Shaw for some SEC violations, leaving little hope for the tower employees to recover their life savings.
Kovacs is angered, so he teams up with several of the other employees, among them his brother-in-law Charlie (Casey Affleck), bellhop Enrique (Michael Peña), Fitzhugh, and his neighbor/thief Slide (Murphy), to rob Shaw of $20 million. Oh, and there’s also Judd Hirsch playing the staff boss.
Tower Heist isn’t much more than cobbled pandering, and to that end, it covers a lot of the appropriate tropes—the hero destroying the villain’s beloved possession; the Obligatory Chess Analogy; the Evil Capitalist Pig; the Sassy Black Woman; and, of course, Kindly Old Negro. The actual heist, we’re assured, has been meticulously planned but seems to hinge on a lot of contingencies that are either accounted for or not (I’m still not sure whether the guards’ distraction was intentional or not, or, for that matter, I have no idea how the booty was concealed, and the ending is wholly abrupt).
There isn’t a lot of cleverness (the most ingenious moment is swiping one character’s cell phone to send a phony text to another) nor humor. I like Stiller more than most, but his role exists largely to inspire hate for the villain and sympathy for the FBI agent while Murphy, who doesn’t enter the film until the latter two-thirds, is there to talk fast and use racial epithets that the white characters couldn’t.
It’s tough to outright dislike the film because it tries so hard to be likeable. There’s nothing deep, not much original, nor funny. But it’s safe.