Despite the staleness of its casting, Tower Heist opens full of sparkle and snap. We watch Josh (Ben Stiller), a super-efficient super for a posh apartment building, play electronic chess with Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), the film’s Hollywoodized version of Bernie Madoff. Both prepare for their days across a cultural chasm: Shaw in penthouse and Josh in his tiny Brooklyn flat. When they do come together, after Josh arrives at the building to solve potential problems, it’s at Shaw’s waiting car. “By the way, checkmate,” the rich man tells his finance-challenged foe. Meanwhile, we’ve met the relevant players, glimpsed the setting, and get the game.
Sadly, this is the last moment in the film when sophisticated narrative ideas entertain us. The plot revolves around investment banker Shaw’s house arrest for embezzlement, as the wacky-but-cool building staffers realize their hard-earned pensions funds were among the money Shaw made disappear. His lack of remorse compounds the crime, obviating a desperate (and sometimes comic) revenge plot. Obviously topical, this upstairs/downstairs conflict might have inspired clever screenwriters to create something incisive and witty like Ealing Studios used to produce, something Alec Guinness might admire. Instead, we get a film dumbed-down enough to make Jim Carrey jealous. From Josh’s out-of-character assault on Shaw’s prize possession to a concluding ploy riddled with stupidity and contrived coincidences, we walk away mad at ourselves for trusting the brilliant opening, swindled by a faked gambit.
And then there’s the cast. Let us charitably say that this ensemble could have been brilliant in the Clinton years. Stiller, Eddie Murphy, and Téa Leoni seem imprisoned in their shtick. Stiller is hard to believe as a mastermind, and Murphy’s pounding a cliché. Only Alda takes risks here, breaking bad and worse as the movie progresses, daring us to hate him. Besides a tense, unbelievable skyscraper car theft during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the film is short on comic funds, and bankrupts itself employing millionaire movie stars to castigate the rich.