At Center Of 'Heist,' A Scene-Stealing Old Favorite
It's hard to remember that Eddie Murphy was once a dangerous talent — flashy, charismatic, hyperverbal and surprisingly volatile, far from the ingratiating goof of kid-friendly franchises like The Nutty Professor, Dr. Doolittle and Shrek. How hard to remember? Audiences today are as far removed from his breakthrough performance as a small-time hustler in 1982's 48 Hrs. as audiences then were removed from Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr smooching on the beach in From Here To Eternity. Those who grew up with the Murphy of old are out of Hollywood's key demographic and into their second mortgage.
In Tower Heist, his otherwise forgettable Ocean's Eleven clone, director Brett Ratner smartly resurrects 48 Hrs.-era Murphy — first by paying homage to his famous jailhouse introduction (no a cappella "Roxanne" this time, though), then by setting the actor loose as another fast-talking crook. And while Murphy's character seems conspicuously out of place — less contemporary than thawed out after 30 years in cold storage — his scenes bristle with a comic tension that mostly dissipates when he's not around. It doesn't help that it takes nearly 40 minutes to get him involved.
In the meantime, Ben Stiller slips into a familiar Everyman role as Josh Kovacs, the devoted manager of New York City's most exclusive high-rise apartment building. When the man on the top floor, a Wall Street fat cat named Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), turns out to be a Madoff-style Ponzi schemer, the consequences for Josh and his staff are severe. Ever trusting and deferential, Josh had invested the workers' pension plan in Arthur's fraudulent fund, and he's told that Arthur tried to flee with just $600 left in his bank account.
When an FBI agent (Tea Leoni) suggests that dirty dealers like Arthur usually keep millions tucked away in cash, Josh decides to play Robin Hood by breaking into the building, cracking Arthur's hidden safe and giving everyone's pensions back, with interest. He recruits a motley team of amateurs for the job: a Wall Street washout (Matthew Broderick), the bungling concierge (Casey Affleck), the enthusiastic new elevator operator (Michael Pena) and a Jamaican maid (Precious' Gabourey Sidibe) who knows how to crack safes. Murphy plays Slide, a petty hoodlum from Josh's Arcadia neighborhood and the closest thing they have to an expert.
Tower Heist connects to — or is it exploits? — the current wave of populist frustration over high-finance chicanery, and there's something inherently winning about a robbery plan where the thieves are motivated by outrage rather than by greed. Yet the plan takes far too long to germinate, and once it's executed in the third act, so much has to be improvised on the fly that it's all rendered moot anyway. There's a germ of a great idea in thieves who've cased the joint simply by working there for years, but the scope of the job becomes too big for anyone to handle, much less amateurs. (The payoff works only if you believe the laws of physics don't always apply.)
Between the protracted setup and the fizzled execution, however, Tower Heist finds a nice comic groove in the job's planning stages, when Murphy finally bursts onto the scene and pings jokes off his timid counterparts. A sequence where he tasks the amateurs each to steal $50 worth of merchandise at a mall is particularly funny, but really, it's just a pleasure to see the Eddie Murphy of Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop again. Time will tell whether this is a rebirth or merely a throwback, but he picks this generic crime comedy clean.
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