"Tower Heist" is an ensemble, and a strong one at that, led by Ben Stiller, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck and Tea Leoni. But Brett Ratner's blast of an action comedy truly brings out the best in Eddie Murphy, something many of us may have forgotten even existed.
Fast-talking, flummoxed and full of false bravado, Murphy gives a performance as a low-level thief that recalls his signature work in the movies that made him a superstar in the mid-1980s - like "48 Hours" and "Beverly Hills Cop." When Murphy's on screen in his classic comic mode, it's hard to focus on anyone or anything else. It's as if we've turned back time and erased all those family-friendly duds and lame laughers that required him to climb into yet another fat suit or talk to even more animals.
"Tower Heist" deflates a bit when Murphy's not around, but for the most part, Ratner's movie is slick and crowd-pleasing - even more successfully so than his "Rush Hour" films - and it couldn't be more relevant in exploring the disparity between the haves and have-nots. Following "In Time," this is the second week in a row with a new release that plays like "Robin Hood" for the Occupy Wall Street crowd.
Stiller stars as Josh, the longtime manager of a luxury high-rise in Manhattan; it's actually the Trump International Hotel and Tower at Columbus Circle. When the financial guru who lives in the penthouse is charged with stealing billions from his investors - including the hardworking tower staff - Josh comes up with a plan to steal their money back. Alan Alda plays this Bernard Madoff figure with just the right mix of affability and sleaze.
But Josh's accomplices, a posse consisting of residents and employees played by Broderick, Affleck, Michael Pena and Gabourey Sidibe, aren't exactly up to the task. They've never stolen anything in their lives. The fact that the financier Shaw is under house arrest complicates their plan further.
So Josh enlists Murphy's character, Slide, whom he's known since they were kids, to give them some tips. Slide isn't nearly the criminal mastermind he professes himself to be, but these guys don't know that; in one amusing montage, he sends them out to shoplift random items at the mall just to prove they can rip off something.
One of the genius elements of the script - credited to Ted Griffin ("Ocean's Eleven") and Jeff Nathanson ("Catch Me If You Can") - is that it actually fleshes these characters out, which makes you care about whether they can pull this thing off. And the vivid childhood memories Josh and Slide have of each other is a running joke that adds to the movie's absurdity; Stiller is solid and hits just the right tone as the righteously indignant anchor at the center of this increasing mayhem.
At the same time, Josh strikes up an unlikely flirtation with the tough-as-nails FBI agent on the case, played by Tea Leoni. She grew up in working-class Queens, like Shaw, and she's disgusted by the flashy swindler he's become. Leoni has one great scene in which her character gets drunk with Stiller's and turns a little too forthcoming; it's a great reminder of what a natural comedienne she is, and it makes you want to see more of her.
The heist itself is, of course, completely ridiculous, but that's part of the point - and part of the fun. Ratner keeps things moving so fluidly that you'll probably just roll with it. And his film is lighted and shot so beautifully (the work of two-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dante Spinotti) and it feels so substantial in terms of production values, you can't help but be drawn in. These feel like actual people doing actual stunts - especially during the crime itself, which takes place during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade - which sadly seems like a rarity in this age of computer-generated extravaganzas.
"Tower Heist," a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for language and sexual content. Running time: 104 minutes. Three stars out of four.