Film’s visual storytelling is not an easy fit for tackling systemic problems. Issues rooted in the culture-wide failure of values, polices and institutions can become narrowed in a movie’s world to mere questions of individual villainy. Bernie Madoff is certainly a bad guy, and it’s a good thing that he is facing justice. But he did not cause the financial collapse or the resulting recession, and they will not be fixed by his imprisonment. Tower Heist is not a great movie by any stretch, but it actually avoids this problem in an interesting way.
Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) – the film’s Madoff stand-in – is the reining patriarch-cum-resident of a condominium tower in New York City. Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller), the head of the building’s staff, decided to entrust Shaw with investing everyone’s pensions. Upon discovering that Shaw is guilty of a massive investment fraud, which has consumed the staff’s portfolios along with the rest of Shaw’s investments, Josh decides to break into Shaw’s rooftop penthouse to steal his cash reserves. Along for the ride are fellow staff members Charlie (Casey Affleck), Enrique (Michael Pena) and Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe), as well as bankrupt resident Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick) and small-time crook Slide (Eddie Murphy).
At the beginning, Josh and his staff are genuinely happy to work for Shaw and entrust him with their savings. The quiet pride they take in their service palpable, especially in their firm declarations that the staff here does not accept tips. They are the quintessential decent and hard-working Americans, and the central emotional arc of Tower Heist is their discovery that they’ve been suckered. Shaw’s benevolence is, in fact, a ploy and his good humor is a surface gloss over a poisonous sense of superiority, entitlement, and avarice. The whole thing functions pretty well as a metaphor for Americans’ disillusionment with the central myth of the modern Right: That the rich are eager to be our friends and produce wealth for the betterment of all, if only we would get out of their way and let ’em. The film’s anger, which illuminates how uncomfortable Hollywood usually is with questions of economic justice, is actually pretty remarkable.
Stiller is well-suited to this material. His natural cantankerousness and hostility – often out-of-place or ill-suited to the lead roles he takes on – here feels consistent with Josh’s outrage and his underlying sense of guilt for turning over his staff’s livelihoods to a crook. Eddie Murphy is funny as always, Broderick brings a certain humanity to his nebbish Wall Street investor, and Affleck does an especially good job embodying a man who is perpetually terrified that he won’t live up to the demands of America’s Darwinian economy. This movie also serves as evidence that Gabourey Sidibe doesn’t get nearly enough work. With her unforced sexiness in a drunken bar conversation with Stiller, Tea Leoni is a small wonder to behold as an FBI agent.
The film is not as funny as it could be, and if it were any longer its more mediocre material would definitely wear out its welcome. Given that its subject is the economic disenfranchisement of the broad majority of Americans, its main cast is awfully white-male-heavy. Tower Heist also feels a bit flat at times: the build up to the robbery isn’t what it could be, and once it’s underway it proceeds more episodically than climactically. But there are some genuinely unexpected and enjoyable complications, and director Brett Ratner delivers one chair-grabbing sequence involving an open window, a dangling car, and a rooftop crane. I haven’t seen vertigo that well communicated by camerawork since the end of Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong.
Tower Heist does not go so far as to declare all the wealthy the enemy. But contra the likes of Paul Ryan, it does realize it’s not safe to assume they’re our allies, either. The American economy is by now unapologetically structured to funnel as much money as possible to the very top of the income spectrum. So the wealthy have an obligation to get on board with reform, or be called to account for the immense benefits they have enjoyed at the expense of the rest of us. We don’t want their tips, we want a just and honest economic order for all. If nothing else, Tower Heist deserves kudos for stating that unabashedly.