Silver Screen: Tower Heist ***

Silver Screen: Tower Heist  ***
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Silver Screen: Tower Heist ***
Bryan Miller

It says something both about the general dearth of actual comedy in big studio comedies, and also about the talent potential of Eddie Murphy, that Murphy's scenes alone seem to make Brett Ratner's quippy caper flick Tower Heist worthwhile. Not great, mind you, or even all that good-- Murphy barely even gets any screen time for the first forty-five minutes of a movie that spends the last half-hour trudging through the most poorly conceived robbery of all time. But when he's on, he's on.

Murphy, of course, has spent the last decade and a half making hard-to-watch family comedies and doing voiceover work, interrupted by his Oscar-nominated semi-dramatic turn in Dreamgirls. The last time he was really funny was way back in 1999's Bowfinger. Fifteen years of unbelievably broad fart gags and patience-trying children's films would expend the accumulated goodwill of just about any other performer, but when at last Tower Heist sticks with Murphy's fast-talking petty crook character for more than a line or two, the excitement starts to build. Eddie is back!

Unfortunately, he's the highlight but not the centerpiece of Tower Heist, which makes gestures toward being an ensemble comedy but is fronted by Ben Stiller playing Josh Kovacs, the diligent and dedicated manager of a tony New York highrise apartment building. When the building's penthouse resident, Bernie Madoff stand-in Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), gets busted for fraud, it's up to Josh to inform the hotel staff that Shaw was also in charge of their pension fund, which is now empty. It's Josh who cooks up the idea to get revenge by leading a crew of building employees-- including front-desk man and father-to-be Charlie (Casey Affleck), elevator operator Enrique (Michael Peñ a), maid Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe), and down-and-out former tenant Chase Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick)-- on a daring robbery to raid Shaw's secret cash stash. But to get away with the crime, the straightlaced Josh needs a little help from an old acquaintance, street hustler Slide (Murphy).

Tower Heist's topicality is almost gratingly on the nose, especially considering it's an expensive movie doubtless reaping profits for some one-percenters while hawking escapist fantasy to the hoodwinked service class. But for all of its strain toward relevancy, the movie has the distinct feel of a 1980s action comedy with its surfeit of car crashes, smashups, witty comebacks, big setpieces, and glaze of anti-elitist sentiment. The throwback vibe works out particularly well for Murphy, whose Forty-eight Hours and Beverly Hills Cop were two of that decade’s most popular series. He's eminently comfortable in this milieu. It also happens to be the stock in trade of director Ratner, a mediocre director who does have a flair for this brand of frivolity, having tapped into it for his enjoyable Rush Hour movies.

But aside from the game cast, nothing about Tower Heist excels. Certainly not the heist itself, which seems like it could have been planned in an hour and written on the back of a bar napkin. When the uninspired bit of burglary inevitably goes zanily awry, the plot takes its dumbest twists and turns. Of course, stupid plot points are forgivable sins in a good comedy, but Tower Heist never fully commits to the jokes, either, too eager to stir up a little drama with some depressing side stories and a tense literal and metaphorical chess match between Kovacs and Shaw, not to mention a dull romantic aside with an investigator played by Té a Leoni. It's all competent, but none of it is great, and when it works it's mostly because the actors are selling junk bonds like they're hot stocks. The fraud continues.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter @bmillercomedy.