Friday, November 11, 2011

The Return of Eddie Murphy

Okay, I'm officially sick of class warfare as a film story theme in 2011. Between the battles of rich teams vs. small teams (Moneyball) and the far more simple upper class vs. poverty (In Time, The Rum Diary), it seems like all Hollywood wants to tell us is that the rich are all out to take every cent the rest of us have hidden in our mattresses. Well, I'm calling bullshit on this. Just because we're going through a rough economic time and legitimate criminals like Bernie Madoff are making off with the hard-earned finances of the lower classes doesn't mean I want to see this in my escapist film-going trips. That said, I was actually kind of looking forward to Tower Heist when it came out this past weekend, a statement that seems to go against my usual dislike of anything involving Ben Stiller or director Brett Ratner. While I at first dismissed Tower Heist as a silly action comedy in the same vein as Ratner's usual unwatchable fare, multiple trailer viewings (I see a LOT of movies, if you haven't gathered by now) steadily wore down my resolve, as I managed to find some details that I liked. Besides Stiller, the cast actually boasted a group of strong character actors, with Tea Leoni, Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck, Michael Pena, Alan Alda and Gabourey Sidibe surely doing most of the film's heavy lifting. But the biggest thing to finally draw me in was the appearance of Eddie Murphy in a lead role. Long decried as a Hollywood has-been following a very brutal succession of failures since his peak in the 80's and early '90's, one often forgets that despite his insanely high contract demands, he can actually be a charming and effective performer when called upon. The trailers made a good point of this, and so while other films demanded my attention first, I knew that eventually I would go to the theaters to see whether the performers could pull what was sure to be a brainless caper out of the mire in which most Ratner films reside.

The biggest star in this scene? Steve McQueen's car.
Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) is the building manager of New York City's most decadent condominium tower. Home to the most rich and famous, the building gets an unwelcome bit of news when their richest resident, investment banker Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) is arrested on financial fraud. Worse, Shaw had been made responsible for the pensions of the working class crew of the building, meaning that all of the clerks, doormen, maids and maintenance staff have lost most of their life savings. Feeling betrayed, Josh and a small group of disgruntled fellow employees hire on his childhood associate and petty criminal Slide (Eddie Murphy) to help rob Shaw for all he's worth. Together, they must infiltrate a building with state-of-the-art security, confound the FBI agents in charge of keeping Shaw on house arrest, and escape with enough to help their beleaguered cohorts while avoiding being caught themselves.

The first and likely only time you'll see Alan Alda in handcuffs
From a story standpoint, Tower Heist is certainly guilty of being incredibly stupid. The simple truth is that this band of misfits and malcontents having any real shot at success in their endeavor should have been treated as pure folly. Ratner's complete inability to treat the story with anything akin to logic is a staple of his work, and a big reason why I haven't enjoyed any of his films besides Red Dragon in 2002. And yet another of Ratner's usual strategies - wall-to-wall action - is conspicuously absent, as the first half hour of the film is a dull limp through character introductions and plot exposition. Tower Heist does pick up in the middle act, thanks especially to the introduction of Murphy, but we'll get to his involvement later on. Even then there is much kept from the audience for sake of suspense, but when the focus on the main characters couldn't have reasonably hidden these elements, the whole thing takes on an even more unbelievable tone. The film's finale succeeds in failure only; the end is wrapped up a little too tightly and leaves far too much to our own conjecture. It makes absolutely no sense, and that's what ultimately drowns Tower Heist's decent ideas.

Murphy pulls out his Cheshire Cat impression
Like the story, Tower Heist's cast and acting is uneven and under-powered. As a departure from much of his career, Ben Stiller plays the straight man, and the overly-serious tone he carries doesn't suit his usual comedic persona. Using his usual stress and aggression to some effect, he looks to be either over-matched or more likely uninspired in the material given him. I would say that he deserves better, but to be honest I can't remember the last time I actually liked him in any movie. Murphy meanwhile is a revelation. Charming and charismatic, Eddie Murphy manages to reach back to his early career days and pull out one of his better performances, which is sadly relegated to second tier status as even when he is finally introduced to us he is underutilized. This is especially poor because he ends up being the most entertaining element of Tower Heist; when he is on the screen, it is the center of the universe. When he isn't, Tower Heist is just a silly caper film  fronted by an unfunny Stiller. The support cast offers some help, though not enough to make a real difference. Alda is as always the consummate professional, and every scene with him is raised just a bit by his mere presence, no matter his actual contribution. Gabourey Sidibe impresses again, the Precious star appearing as a Jamaican maid with an attitude and a talent for safecracking. Sidibe is also underused, and her scenes are second only to Murphy in quality. Tea Leoni proves to be as sultry and talented as she ever was in the past, appearing as a sensual FBI agent with a thing for Josh. It's after that however that the talent takes a downturn. Michael Pena is once again misused as an honest but less than cerebral maintenance technician, and Matthew Broderick stretches not one whit creatively as a bumbling, wishy-washy former tenant of the Tower. Worst of the bunch is Casey Affleck as Josh's brother-in-law, a desk clerk who is bad at his job but desperate for the money because of his pregnant wife. Completely flat and uninteresting, Affleck needed a foil to play off of (such as Oceans 11's Scott Caan) to become more interesting. Lacking that, Affleck merely moves from scene to scene, showing none of the talent or charisma that we've seen in his bigger roles the past decade.

Hey, look! There goes our credibility!
If the story had focused more on Murphy's criminal Slide and given more attention to delivering the laughs, Tower Heist would have been a pretty good film. Instead what we get barely breaks even with usual Brett Ratner fare, as an uninspired cast fails to do much more than draw out the inevitable, and the horrible finish simply put a cap on what was barely worth seeing in the first place. If you REALLY want to see Eddie Murphy in his prime, this might be worth a DVD rental in a few months. Of course, if you're going to visit the video store ANYWAY, you'd probably be better off picking up any of his Beverly Hills Cop films instead. That's right; even Beverly Hills Cop III. Tower Heist doesn't even beat THAT.

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