Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas (@peteramartin)

Josh Kovacs is a regular guy. We know this because he's from Queens, so when he gets upset his accent returns and he sounds like a proper Noo Yawker. And when he's pushed too far, he resorts to physical violence. You know, like in the movies.

Brett Ratner's Tower Heist is very much a movie that is based on other movies. Reportedly, Eddie Murphy originally pitched it as "a black Ocean's Eleven." Just like certain neighborhoods in New York, however, the thieves were transformed from an all-African American crew to a racially diverse team led by Ben Stiller as Josh Kovacs.

Josh, the manager of a luxury high-rise Manhattan residence known as The Tower, is a tough yet reasonable boss. He has high standards, but he's friendly and approachable with his staff, notably long-time doorman Lester (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and housekeeper Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe). He is tolerant of the foibles exhibited by Charlie (Casey Affleck), his second-in-command, and patient with new employee Enrique (Michael Peña).

When it comes to the residents, Josh is appropriately deferential and solicitous, especially toward Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a wealthy investment banker who lives alone in the penthouse. Shaw likes to tell people that he and Josh come from the same neighborhood in Queens; it's his way of pretending that he's just like regular people. Josh, however, really is 'like regular people,' or at least how we'd like to be, as demonstrated by his handling of a delicate situation involving Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), a resident who has fallen on hard times and has lost his home and his family to financial downturns.

Everything is turned topsy-turvy with the revelation that Shaw has been running a Ponzi scheme, and that his victims include all of The Tower's staff, whose pension fund was managed by Shaw, at Josh's request. The saddest victim is Lester, whose imminent, long-planned retirement will probably never be realized.

Shaw, busted by a task force led by Special Agent Claire Denham (Téa Leoni), is remanded to his penthouse, where he will be kept under house arrest until his trial. It's all a bit too much for Josh, who loses his temper, charges to the penthouse, and expresses his righteous indignation by smashing up a rare sports car, valued at multiple millions of dollars, that Shaw keeps on display. Josh is fired by his boss Mr. Simon (Judd Hirsch), along with Charlie and Enrique, who came along for moral support.

Josh, believing that Shaw has hidden millions in the penthouse, quickly hatches a plan to steal back the lost pension funds, recruiting Charlie, Enrique, and Mr. Fitzhugh, as well as Slide (Eddie Murphy), a criminal-type who lives across the street from him.

Tower Heist is so clearly a fantasy that it's hard to resist laughing at how ridiculous it is. None of the characters are recognizably human in their behavior; they're all souped-up comic stereotypes, roughy the equivalent of a modern-day vaudeville show. As with an old-time vaudeville act, the movie provokes laughter through an accumulation of old jokes, funny costumes, and physical slapstick that gradually wears down raised barriers. Genuine verbal wit, though, is absent.

He may be a stranger to subtlety, but Brett Ratner knows how to fashion outlandish set pieces that push far beyond logic and common sense, which fits with the flights of fantasy that run rampant. And the scenes that feature Slide teaching four honest people how to steal are inspired, allowing Murphy to sample the characters he played in 48 HRS. and Trading Places to new effect.

As an 80s-style action-comedy, Tower Heist feels almost old-fashioned in its reliance on broad stereotypes and illogical set pieces. Ratner, however, has set a pretty low bar over the past 11 years -- The Family Man, Red Dragon, X-Men: The Last Stand, Rush Hour 3 -- so saying that his new film is better than expected isn't saying very much. .

The screenplay, credited to Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson, from a story credited to Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, and Griffin, bears the fingerprints of multiple writers, resulting in an anonymous hodgepodge. For example, Josh has strict standards, both for himself and for his place of business, but he tosses those aside without a second thought when he comes face to face with Shaw's criminality. He feels fully-justified in becoming a criminal himself, and dragging others into his scheme as well, imagining that he's some kind of Robin Hood. He's portrayed in such a heroic light that there's no room for self-doubt, even though it's impossible to imagine anyone who has maintained such high standards of personal and business integrity for so many years would so calmly turn to the dark side, as it were.

Divorce the character completely from reality, however, and he can engage in whatever crowd-pleasing conduct that he wishes, with no recriminations that will cause lasting harm. The same guiding principles applies to the action scenes, which fall apart upon close consideration.

But Tower Heist is not meant to be taken seriously. It's a good example of a disposable commodity for the masses, nothing more, nothing less.

Tower Heist opens wide today across the U.S. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.

Tower Heist

  • Brett Ratner
  • Adam Cooper (story)
  • Bill Collage (story)
  • Ted Griffin (story)
  • Ted Griffin (screenplay)
  • Jeff Nathanson (screenplay)
  • Ben Stiller
  • Eddie Murphy
  • Casey Affleck
  • Alan Alda
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Brett RatnerAdam CooperBill CollageTed GriffinJeff NathansonBen StillerEddie MurphyCasey AffleckAlan AldaActionComedyCrime

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