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By Lane, Anthony | The New Yorker, November 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

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Lane, Anthony, The New Yorker


At the risk of invoking Freud, you have to wonder why movie stars are attracted to big, long films about towers. "The Towering Inferno" had Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, and William Holden; it also had Fred Astaire and O. J. Simpson, a pairing so exquisite that Luis Bunuel must have wished he'd thought of it first. Now we have "Tower Heist," which features Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Alan Alda, Casey Affleck, Tea Leoni, Matthew Broderick, and Judd Hirsch. None of these, I concede, are up there with Fred Astaire, but, then, who is? What counts is safety in numbers--actors mustering together to lend bulk and momentum to a tale that they know to be dumb. The difference is that in 1974 they got away with it.

The director of the new film is Brett Ratner, previously responsible for the "Rush Hour" trilogy. The origins of his style are unclear, but the influence of, say, early Fellini is less easy to detect than that of Cuisinart. Toss everything you can find, starting with roughly diced plots, into the blender, press "Pulse," and pray: such appears to be the method behind "Tower Heist." Stiller plays Josh Kovacs, the building manager of the Tower, a Trump-flavored pile of high-end apartments on Central Park West. The wise guy in the penthouse is Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), who helps the Tower's staff members invest their savings in a pension fund, scrupulously following the edicts of a philosopher named Ponzi. When Kovacs and his colleagues discover that Shaw has swindled them, they plan their revenge.

If you can call it a plan. Few things are more foolishly satisfying than a good heist movie, but, unless the heisters are seen to devise their great day with precision, everything slumps, and so it proves with Ratner on the case. The climax of the crime shows a luscious old Ferrari being dangled from the Tower's roof, while down below a giant Snoopy floats by in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Although it's a pleasingly brazen image, you can imagine Ratner's command to his team of writers (three of them are credited with the story, and two with the screenplay): "Get me to the car-dangle. I don't care how. Just get me there." No audience objects to suspending its disbelief, but we do expect something in return, and the film's refusal of all known logic has the tang of both indolence and insult. How can our heroes be sure of sneaking past security? Because everyone in security will rush outside to gaze up at Snoopy, that's how. Good grief, Charlie Brown.

None of this is fair to the director of photography, Dante Spinotti, who shot "The Last of the Mohicans," "Heat," and "L.A. Confidential," and who kicks off "Tower Heist" with a dazzling shot of the eyes of Benjamin Franklin. Pull back, and it turns into a vast hundred-dollar bill, painted on the bottom of Shaw's swimming pool, atop the Tower. Nothing else is as loaded as that image, which makes you ask what Spinotti might have delivered in tandem with a wiser or angrier director. The notion of a theft from the thieves--from those who are lapped in lofty, screw-you wealth--is a tempting one right now, but "Tower Heist" passes the buck. Only one character seems burned by the shame of the system, and that is Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), who lost his job at Merrill Lynch and now faces eviction from the Tower. Broderick has always found flecks of exasperation and near-despair even in his cheeriest roles, and this cruddy movie has one perfect moment, in which Fitzhugh, having moved out to a motel room, is asked what he's up to. "I'm thinking of becoming a male prostitute," he says, instantly and without complaint. It gets a laugh, because Broderick underplays it so well, and because you fear it could be true.

Strange to report, "Tower Heist" might nonetheless become a footnote in the history of cinema, as might Lars von Trier's "Melancholia," another new release. The two works have almost nothing in common, except that both show clumps of unlikable people behaving implausibly in confined spaces. …

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