REVIEW: ‘Tower Heist.’ A Bunch of Comic Actors Pretend To Be Thieves, Poorly, and at the End There’s a Parade

1. Boy, does "Tower Heist" ever have everything going for it. A crackerjack, straight-from-the-headlines premise (luxury condo workers have their pensions stolen and lost by a Madoff-type character and get revenge by using their knowledge of the high-rise to steal their money back). Rather unprecedented access to some splendid New York City locations, specifically Trump Tower, which is smartly called "The Tower" here, so you don't start getting confused about the movie's birth certificate. A once-in-a-lifetime cast, with comic heavyweights Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy up top and terrific supporting characters all the way down, from Alan Alda to Michael Pena to Tea Leoni. You've got a heist comedy with legitimate urgency and a cast that's desperate to please: How in the world could you screw this up? Let me tell you: "Tower Heist" finds a way. Several, actually.

2. I think the problem, perhaps not surprisingly, is "Tower Heist"'s director, Brett Ratner. Now, Ratner has been a critical whipping boy for years now, with considerable justification, but the guy's films have had success for a reason: They're glib, they're breezy, they're light as a feather and they don't pretend to be about anything more than what's right there on the screen. He also has absolute faith that, if he hasn't thought through a scene clearly (which is obviously a regular occurrence), trusting that talented actors to pull him through will suffice. That might work for Chris Tucker-Charlie Sheen cop comedies (maybe), but with "Tower Heist," Ratner is trying his hand at a procedural, a crime caper, the type of story that requires planning, care, seamless execution. This must have been particularly difficult for Ratner, who seems to have shot "Tower Heist"'s scenes while in a dead sprint, like he had 20 minutes in-between lunch meetings and just needed to squeeze in shots really fast. This is the most incoherent, slapdash "heist" movie I think I've ever seen. I don't think Ratner stopped for half a second to think about any aspect of this film other than the 25-word pitch and the cast. This is "Ocean's 11" put together by morons.

3. The story is irresistible. Stiller plays Josh Kovacs, a Queens kid who runs "The Tower" with a succession of colorful characters, all of whom revere him. The penthouse is occupied by Arthur Shaw (Alda, having a lot of fun), an investment kingpin who plays computer chess with Kovacs in this film's clumsy attempt at foreshadowing. Turns out, Shaw has defrauded his clients and lost all their money, including the entire staff of The Tower. Kovacs explodes and gets fired, before vowing vengeance (and restitution) by getting a group of unlikely characters (his concierge Casey Affleck, evicted resident Matthew Broderick and dim-bulb operator man Michael Pena) to sneak into Shaw's condo and steal $25 million. Kovacs calls upon an ex-con neighbor (Eddie Murphy) to help him plan the robbery, but as far as I can tell, no one ever comes up with a plan. That would require too much time. Instead, we sprint from the "planning" stages to the "execution," which basically involves Kovacs and company ... well, they never really figure out what they're going to do. They're just sort of in the building, and then there's a double cross that doesn't make sense, and then everyone's hanging outside the building for some reason. The "heist" of this movie has the intellectual complexity of a backyard football play drawn on a hand that's simply, "Hell, just go deep, I'll throw it to one of you."

4. It's difficult to overstate how little thought Ratner and company put into the details of this supposed "heist" movie. There are no real scenes of planning, and the preparation involved is basically just comic scenes involving Murphy making fun of these nerds for not knowing how to steal. I was no fan of "Horrible Bosses," but at least it gave Jamie Foxx's character (a similar one to Murphy's here) a joke; he wasn't actually a criminal at all but was stringing these guys along. Ratner doesn't even have the energy to go that far; Murphy is sort of a thief, and then he isn't, and then he's a backstabber, and then he isn't, and there isn't a second that his character makes a lick of sense. It doesn't help that, sad as it is to say, this is one of Murphy's least focused performances; you can see him straining for laughs that don't come because there's nothing inherently funny about his character. He's just "crook." (You keep expecting for some switch, some ironic twist, that never comes; it's just Murphy acting "street," or at least Brett Ratner's version of whatever "street" is.) Same goes for the whole cast. You can see them grasping for something to hold onto, and lacking that, they just spin off and do their own things. Some of them are quite funny; Leoni, Pena and Casey Affleck are individually amusing in select, isolated scenes. But there's nothing there. Stiller probably gets the worst of it, because his brand of nervous energy keeps waiting for something to bounce off of ... but Ratner hasn't provided him anything. Stiller and Murphy would seem to be a perfect comedic paring, the wild elasticity and chaos of Murphy reacting with Stiller's live-wire paranoia. It never comes together. Ratner just sort of puts the camera on them and says, "Go." Probably just in one take, too.

5. The climaxing sequence of the "heist" is so slapdash as to resemble an experimental student film trying to make some academic point about context and establishing shots. Kovacs and his crew are forced to improvise their plan, which could have been amusing if it didn't feel like the director were doing the same thing. Ratner doesn't even go through the trouble of letting us know who's in on the scheme; in one scene, we are meant to just assume that a certain character has been plotting with our conspirators all along, though there hasn't been a single scene before that implied as much. (I honestly do not understand, still, who was involved in the heist at all, or even what the plan was supposed to be.) The whole movie's like that: It is a heist movie that doesn't care about the heist. What is this thing, then? You have skilled comic actors tapping their feet like crazy to entertain, in a movie that trusts that is enough. It isn't. The movie has a forward velocity to it that will probably propel audiences along, but only if you don't stop for a second and say, "Hey, what's supposed to be happening here? Also, why isn't Eddie Murphy funny in this?" It is empty piffle; it is whip-its. This is "Ocean's 11" after "Ocean's 11" has suffered several concussions. This is a damn shame, is what it is.

Grade: C