Twists and turns of 'Tower Heist' prove to be entertaining

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Ben Stiller, left, and Eddie Murphy are shown in a scene from “Tower Heist.” Photo courtesy of Associated Press/Universal Pictures, David Lee.

Brett Ratner’s name often draws scoffs among filmgoers, as the director tends to ping-pong between lukewarm comedies (“The Family Man”) and overwrought thrillers (“After the Sunset”), not to mention single-handedly torpedoing the original “X-Men” trilogy with his third installment. However, Ratner seems to have found his niche with “Tower Heist,” a slick, twisty and genuinely entertaining heist film that’s easily his finest to date.

Taking timely aim at the financial elite, “Tower Heist” stars Ben Stiller, Casey Affleck and Michael Peña as employees at the Tower, a New York skyscraper that houses the richest of the rich, including Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda). When Shaw is arrested and the staff, who have invested their pensions with him, learn their money is gone, building manager Josh Kovacs (Stiller) flies into a blind rage that gets him and his friends fired. Hungry for revenge, they enlist ousted tenant Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick) and local thug Slide (Eddie Murphy) to pull off a high-stakes robbery from Shaw’s penthouse apartment.

Like numerous heist films before it, “Tower Heist” relies strongly on the chemistry of its cast, and the Stiller-led ensemble doesn’t disappoint. Stiller is more likeable here than he’s been in years, and his straight-laced team leader makes for a cheer-worthy hero, especially when he proves to be unexpectedly sharp and capable under extreme duress. Eddie Murphy, freed from the layers of make up and morality that prevailed during many of his recent “contributions” to cinema, veers between energetically charming and confident and occasionally harsh and even a bit scary — definitely Murphy’s best performance since 2006’s “Dreamgirls.” The supporting cast, rounded out by Affleck, an affably defeated Broderick, Peña and “Precious” star Gabourey Sidibe — packing a hilarious Jamaican accent — is grounded thanks to a genuinely touching performance from Stephen McKinley Henderson as Lester, an elderly doorman who loses his life savings to Shaw’s scheme.

Thanks to the vibrant energy among the cast and strong pacing from Ratner, “Tower Heist” moves fairly quickly, spending just enough time establishing characters and the geography of the Tower before putting them to the task of breaking into their former workplace. Murphy barely appears in the film for the first 40 minutes, but his entrance, as he teaches his co-conspirators how to steal, is hugely entertaining. The film doesn’t take too long before leading into its climactic heist, and Ratner finds a way to add some wrinkles to the plot, some expected and some genuinely surprising. However, the final moments trade plot and character for spectacle as the characters find their plan crumbling under them and have to improvise as the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade takes over the streets around them, making for some impressively-shot scenes that leave character development and logic behind.

One need only read the newspaper, with its talk of Occupy Wall Street and other political movements focused on the extreme upper class, to realize just how timely “Tower Heist” is, and the film will give many of those feeling the pressures of the times vicarious relief, if only for two hours. The film manages to bottle up all the resentment and anger of the current economic situation many are facing and convey it into a fun, relatively harmless comedy that brings Eddie Murphy back to being a funny, strong performer. For that, “Tower Heist” is easy to recommend.

Published on November 4, 2011 as: 'Tower Heist' uses cast chemistry to entertain