TOWER HEIST: Watch It At Home – Hardly Luxury-Class
There may never have been a director more proud of being a hack than Brett Ratner. In a recent NY Times profile, Ratner boasts (when he’s not going on about his friendship with Roman Polanski, because yeah, there’s a social relationship you’d want to broadcast) that “it’s a much harder skill to make movies for millions of people, for mainstream audiences, than it is a pretentious art film.” So Rush Hour 3 required a higher degree of effort than, say, The Seventh Seal or Days of Heaven. Thanks, Brett!
Ratner obviously enjoys playing Populist, and in a more general (and less arrogant) sense, there’s no question that making solid entertainment is a lot harder than it looks–it’s one of the reasons Steven Spielberg spent years earning millions with little awards recognition. Even below the Spielberg level, there’s a worthy, estimable tradition of journeymen directors like Sydney Pollack, Norman Jewison and Rob Reiner who have dependably moved from genre to genre for years, reliably turning out enjoyable, well-crafted work.
So how is a hack different from a journeyman? It’s not an absence of filmmaking ability–several of Ratner’s pictures like The Family Man and Red Dragon are perfectly well executed entertainments, and his new TOWER HEIST (and yes, we’ll get to that) delivers a reasonable amount of fun. It’s the soullessness that makes the difference–the sense you have, watching his movies, that on Ratner’s sets, no one from the director on down feels any compulsion to do more than perform their bare minimums and collect their paychecks. Ratner directs movies like factory-workers put together microwavable dinners–and the result is much the same, neither entirely tasteless nor particularly delicious.
Tower Heist is Ratner’s second entry in the light-comedy robbery genre, the first being 2004′s After the Sunset (honestly, did you even remember that one existed?). The premise this time is more promising: when the employees of a luxury NY apartment building discover that the Bernie Madoff-type billionaire tenant to whom they entrusted their investments (Alan Alda) has, well, acted like Bernie Madoff, and that even worse, he’s made a deal with the feds that will let him get away with it, a group of them decide to rob his impossible-to-crack apartment and take his ill-gotten gains. The heroes are led by Ben Stiller as the downtrodden building manager, and come to include Casey Affleck, Michael Pena, Gabourey Siddibe, as well as impoverished tenant Matthew Broderick. The wild card in the group is a professional small-time thief (Eddie Murphy) enlisted by Stiller to teach the amateurs how to stage the heist. Meanwhile FBI agent Tea Leoni is in charge of guarding Alda when she’s not flirting with Stiller.
The obvious modern model for this kind of lighthearted, non-violent caper movie is Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s 11, and not to belabor the point, but here again we can see the difference between hack and non-hack. Soderbergh brought wit and grace to his Ocean’s movie; Ratner has nothing to offer but efficiency. The script by Jeff Nathanson and Ted Griffin (the latter was a writer of the Ocean’s script) goes for broad laughs and sight gags–the robbery is carried out during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, and a key sequence involves a car hanging outside a high-story window. It wouldn’t pay to think about any of the storyline for very long. Still, there’s some sharp dialogue and Ratner keeps things moving.
Although Stiller is dull in the lead–all the paycheck movies he’s done over the past decade seem to have disengaged parts of his brain; you almost expect him to start singing “Daisy, Daisy” like the lobotomized HAL in 2001–Eddie Murphy is better than he’s been in years. It’s anyone’s guess why this is the role that engaged him after a run of lazy crap that makes Stiller’s look like Beckett and Godard, but Murphy is genuinely funny, with the kind of rediscovered zing and energy that made him a superstar in the first place. Much of the rest of the cast is wasted, but Sidibe’s offbeat comic rhythm plays like gangbusters in her scenes with Murphy, and Leoni has a few moments that remind us she’s the single most wasted comic leading lady of her generation.
Brett Ratner’s goal in life is only to make Big Mac movies, all empty calories and disposable packaging, yet satisfying enough while you’re cramming them into your mouth. Tower Heist, as his pictures go, is a tolerably Happy Meal.