At the same time, director Brett Ratner, working from a script by Ted Griffith and Jeff Nathanson, leave the door open for arguments that maybe their movie doesn't do enough on these fronts, teasing elements of a deeper movie and a more incisive comedy than the one we get before pulling back for the pratfall. And sometimes the pratfall is funny--I genuinely love a well set-up pratfall and bit of comic mayhem--but Tower Heist keeps almost being a movie that I want to think about more, almost straining to say something beyond "rich assholes are rich assholes," but never quite capturing anything in that.
The plot involves Stiller's Josh character and the rest of the condo's staff learning that not only is their top floor resident Shaw being tried for embezzlement (thanks to a maybe more bombastic chase at the opening of the movie than was really necessary), but that thanks to Stiller, Shaw has fed their pension to his massive, multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme. When Josh learns from the pretty but maybe too liberal with the liquor FBI agent handling the case (Téa Leoni), that the Feds suspect Shaw has been hiding upwards of several million dollars from his scheme, Josh believes he knows where Shaw is keeping his money (spoiler: it's ultimately someplace both kind of clever and mostly stupid). Josh teams up with a couple of his recently unemployed coworkers (Casey Affleck, Michael Pena) and one evicted tenant (Matthew Broderick) to plan a heist with the help of the only thief Josh knows, Slide (Eddie Murphy, the reason you probably wanted to see this thing), and they begin hatching their elaborate plan to rip off the increasingly smug rich man.
Let's put aside all of the really obvious and mostly there to convince us they're smarter than they are chess analogies that bookend the movie (an actual game between Josh and Shaw at the opening of the film and a literal callback to a move Shaw keeps bringing up), and look at the relationship between the two characters, which would have made a damned fine movie on its own. Josh knows every need, every vice of every person in the building and dutifully sets out to make sure that they are filled. He's friendly with Shaw but obviously not friends, and there's a kind of patronage there as Shaw announces that he has plans to buy a hotel in the Caribbean and wants Josh to manage it. Shaw even says that he comes from the same neighborhood that Josh does and for one brief moment when Josh confronts Shaw about the crimes of which he's accused, there's a genuine moment of betrayal on both their parts.
I keep getting caught up on that point. Josh presumably has to hike it 45 minutes or more to work in the morning to join his coworkers in serving the astronomically rich, and here's one guy who's kind of an aspirational figure for him in the form of Shaw. But then he learns how Shaw came by his money and it's like something is pulled out from under Josh. This is all in the first 15-20 minutes of Tower Heist and I was very, very interested here.
But from there, Shaw turns into an outright scheming villain, Josh gets his band of merry men to rob Shaw's place, and Tower Heist becomes a much smaller movie about how to get something expensive off the top floor of a luxury apartment. It's kind of funny throughout, yeah, but again, it's so tough to feel a smarter, funnier movie that doesn't rely on Eddie Murphy mugging at the camera or scream-talking to get its laughs.
*This doesn't preclude considering the movie in the wider context of other films by the same director or its performers, but I think we all do a pretty good job of keeping our scope narrowed to the movie at hand.