Like the scheming protagonists in the slick caper Tower Heist, the film’s creators had some big plans that didn’t exactly work out. The film was first pitched as a black Ocean’s Eleven that would pair producer/star Eddie Murphy with a who’s-who of black comic talent, and climax with a heist involving Donald Trump and the Trump Tower. Then Ben Stiller came onboard, the Trump element was abandoned, and the film became a crowd-pleasing multiracial heist comedy co-starring Murphy. Then Universal announced it would make the film available on demand in two cities for $59.99 three weeks after its theatrical release, only to nix those plans after outcry from theater owners. Alas, the only thing revolutionary about Tower Heist is its botched pay-per-view distribution scheme; the film is otherwise defined by a puppyish eagerness to give viewers exactly what it imagines they want.
Ben Stiller stars as the frighteningly efficient manager of an upscale high-rise building in the heart of Manhattan. He’s single-mindedly focused on his job until he discovers that the Bernie Madoff-like resident (Alan Alda) of the building’s penthouse suite has looted its employees’ pensions. He then sets about stealing some of the money back with the help of milquetoast businessman Matthew Broderick, Jamaican maid/safecracker Gabourey Sidibe, and a smartass career criminal played by Murphy.
It would be a mistake to call Murphy’s performance a stretch, since he played so many hustlers early in his career, but the break from playing fathers and the morbidly obese invigorates him; he hasn’t been this lively since Dreamgirls. Tower Heist gets off to a poky, exposition-riddled start, burdened with having to introduce a sprawling ensemble cast and their one defining characteristic apiece. It picks up for good once Murphy enters the picture halfway through, and it benefits from some nice ensemble work, but no thought or care seems to have gone into the heist at the movie’s core: it’s a big, dumb, blunt instrument of a plan. In the end, Tower Heist isn’t a black Ocean’s Eleven or a bold leap forward for feature-film distribution, just a passable piece of commercial entertainment that falls closer to product than art.