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Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011 03:32 pm

Murphy and crew deliver in Tower Heist

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Ben Stiller, Matthew Broderick, Michael Pena, Casey Affleck and Eddie Murphy in Tower Heist.

The caper movie is one of Hollywood’s most durable genres. If done right, it provides audiences with not only thrills but a vicarious rush as we witness a group of mismatched crooks connive their way to instant riches. The best in recent years, Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job and Inception among them, have employed elaborate schemes and all-star casts to deliver the goods. It’s proven to be a reliable formula for viewers and film studios alike.

Brett Ratner’s Tower Heist is a slight affair when compared to those. The job at its center is much smaller and the crew assembled to pull it off isn’t nearly as slick. Yet that doesn’t mean it isn’t an entertaining diversion. The sheer force of its cast helps elevate what would otherwise have been a B-movie effort into a passable diversion.

At the center of the film’s turmoil is Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), an investment banker whose questionable actions result in his being gifted a nice pair of silver bracelets by FBI agent Claire Denham (Tea Leoni) and being placed under house arrest until he can stand trial for fraud. Trouble is, not only did he take a bunch of Wall Street fat cats to the cleaners but also the staff of the high-priced condominium building where he lives. Residence manager Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) thought he was making a wise move turning over their pension fund to Shaw to invest. But little did he know it would go straight into the embezzler’s pocket.

Informed by Denham that most crooks of Shaw’s ilk often have a large reserve of cash stashed away to flee the country with, Kovacs thinks he knows where this safety net is hidden and enlists a ragtag group from the building to help him steal it. Among them is his nervous brother-in-law and concierge Charlie (Casey Affleck); former investor and recently evicted tenant Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick); new elevator operator and supposed electrical expert Enrique (Michael Pena); maid and safe expert Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe) and petty thief Slide (Eddie Murphy).

The film takes its time, leisurely laying out its premise. It’s only at the 40-minute mark, when Murphy becomes a part of this motley crew, that the movie starts to heat up. As one of the film’s producers, the comedian obviously knew he needed a project that would take him back to the early days of his career. His Slide is the sort of foul-mouthed, belligerent delight he excels in playing. Family-friendly Murphy is nowhere in sight. The half hour in which he’s the focus of the movie is a true delight and provides a welcome showcase for the comic.

While Murphy is the straw that stirs the drink here, Ratner and his screenwriters find fun ways of getting the rest of the cast into the mix as well. Stiller is the straight man, which he does well, but the odd tangential conversations that Murphy, Broderick, Affleck and Pena get involved in are very funny. They play to each actor’s strengths and result in big laughs. If anything, the movie needs more interaction between them. Fortunately, Leoni isn’t relegated to the sidelines as she plays to the strengths of the character, giving us a smart, tough, yet human FBI agent who, while not condoning the boy’s actions, at least understands them. She’s also sexy as all get out in a fun drunk scene she shares with Stiller.

To be sure, Tower Heist’s caper nearly jumps the rails when it becomes a bit ridiculous towards the end. However the cast, a group of pros if there ever was one, are able to see the job through and deliver a satisfying entertainment.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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