Brett Ratner has a well-earned reputation as a populist, a crafter of films that please audiences for two hours and then are immediately forgotten. He’s like a house band that’s been playing at the same bar every night for 10 years: he’s not going to experiment too much to avoid the risk of losing his audience, he has an innate competency that’s not threatened by any impulse to get too artistic, he can give an audience what he thinks they want without letting any kind of directorial signature get in the way, and his films are usually far more enjoyable when one is heavily inebriated.
Tower Heist is, then, perhaps the pinnacle of whatever we might consider the “Ratner style.” It is breezily unchallenging, well-constructed, stupid in a sincere way, and shockingly, breathtakingly unfunny. It works, sure, in the way that a junior high school production of Glengarry Glen Ross might work: anything that might have had the slightest bit of edge has been stripped away and replaced with child-safety padding. It is more bad than good, but still, as a populist work, it succeeds as a mild form of distracting entertainment, largely despite itself.
Significant parts of that are probably due to Ben Stiller, playing Josh, an affable building manager at a luxury high rise in Central Park West in New York. Stiller has never been a classic straight man, although he’s done more than his fair share of reacting to ridiculous situations in movies like the Fockers series. Here he dials things down even farther away from the wacky caricatures he’s perhaps best known for, the better to bounce off of the over-the-top cast that Ratner surrounds him with. He’s a likable, solid presence who manages to refrain from making too many funny faces, but then, does he really need to when he has to share the screen with Eddie Murphy?
Josh is taken aback when it turns out that his building’s owner and star resident, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), has pulled a Madoff and apparently absconded with all of his investors' money, including that of the pension fund of the building employees. He’s swiftly arrested and placed under confinement in his palatial penthouse suite, leaving Josh and his friends to find some way to infiltrate his apartment, find his hidden wall safe, and retrieve whatever cash he has in order to pay back all the working stiffs he ripped off.
The gag is that all of those friends range from unskilled to inept, with Matthew Broderick’s sadsack Fitzhugh never really given much of anything to do, and Michael Peña’s Dev’Reaux filling the token idiot slot and managing to be achingly humor-free while doing so. The bulk of the screen time is, of course, allotted to Murphy as Josh’s slick neighbor Slide, a small-time criminal who’s recruited to help the gang with their heist. He’s only borderline competent (would anyone really want to recruit help from a criminal that they had to bail out of jail?), and a better movie would probably play that up for more laughs, but instead we’re thrown headlong into what feels at times like an Eddie Murphy funny face compilation. He may not be wearing a fat suit in Tower Heist, but he certainly acts as though he needs to make his movements and facial expressions as broad as possible. There’s no subtlety here, in the humor or the plot, but then, hey: Ratner.
Hell, that hypothetical better movie would have actually crafted some jokes for at least a few of the actors, but instead it mostly relies on body part references and “clever” turns of phrase that would make even the lowest common denominator start tapping its feet and looking for the basement that Tower Heist found its comedy in. It’s not even humor that could be called engagingly filthy or stupid; it’s just dumb. It’s not even sophomoric; it seems to have sprung up more from an elementary school playground than a writer’s room. Think hearing the word “vagina” is funny just by itself? Is a broke man saying “I’m thinking of becoming a male prostitute” with a straight face all you need to start busting a gut? Would you like to hear Eddie Murphy’s opinions on why “lesbians have the nicest titties?” The script of Tower Heist feels like it might have produced with the input of ten-year-olds who have found some mildly ribald joke book from the 1960’s, unaware that there’s a whole wide world of truly funny profanity waiting for them when they grow up.
If the humor portions of Tower Heist fall flat, the heist itself, which is the bulk of the film’s third act, at least has a mildly sprightly feel to it. The best heist films present an impossible situation for our heroes, unbreakable security, vaults with doors of three-foot-thick steel, fields of laser beams, alarms that summon burly Croatians with machineguns with underslung grenade launchers, etc. Tower Heist mostly ignores all of that, though; this is the kind of film that tells you that the building being robbed has the best security system in all of the U.S., then has its heroes rely on hoping that the security guards won’t be watching their monitors when they attempt to infiltrate it. I’m serious: a large part of their plot relies on people being distracted or simply not looking in a certain direction at a certain time, despite the fact that they have no way to ensure that this happens. This is a scheme that would fall apart if a single person among thousands at the Macy’s Day parade would simply look up.
Ratner, in other words, is not one to let logic get in the way of a good time, but if you’re the type to be rankled by glaring plot holes, that good time might prove elusive. Still, his direction gives the proceedings a completely competent vibe to them, with an escalating sense of “well, now what the hell are we going to do?” as the heist picks up steam that at least keeps you interested in the goings-on. You’re never particularly bored by Tower Heist, in other words, even if you find yourself insulted by it much of the time.
Tower Heist has its strengths, even if they are few: Stiller’s a solid lead, Casey Affleck’s affable as his somewhat inept brother-in-law concierge who welcomes a Korean resident with red flowers on Chinese New Year, and Alda seems to enjoy playing against his counter-cultural roots as a sleazy billionaire. Ratner is one of those directors who would be called a “game manager” if he was a quarterback: he can’t do anything exceptional, but he rarely fumbles the ball, and the film is at least slickly watchable. Still, I don’t think I so much as cracked a smile the entire time, although some of the other theater denizens certainly seemed to find it uproarious enough (although they were the ones that appeared to bring copious amounts of alcohol with them). It doesn’t speak well of a film that it has to be enjoyed under the influence of substances, but then that’s probably preferable to not being enjoyable under any circumstances, ever.