A revenge of the have-nots playing on the clear class stratification of the luxury high-rise, Tower Heist pits lobby against penthouse. Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) is the manager of The Tower, an exclusive apartment building on Columbus Circle (the Trump International, in fact). Josh's job is to know every peccadillo and predict every whim of his building's pampered residents, none of whose happiness is more important than that of the man on the top floor, number 138 on the Forbes 400, investor Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), who keeps Steve McQueen's Ferrari in his living room.
One day, bringing charges of financial malfeasance, the FBI comes for Shaw. The staff's astonishment turns to horror when Josh tells them that Shaw, a board member at The Tower, was managing all of their pensions, which have now evaporated along with his fortune. Outraged and guilty, Josh confronts Shaw, only to get himself canned along with two co-workers: the unqualified concierge Charlie (Casey Affleck), and a new hire, Dev'reaux (Michael Peña). Josh's guts impress one of the agents assigned to Shaw's case (Téa Leoni), who gives Josh the idea that Shaw must have an emergency flight fund stashed somewhere. So with his newly unemployed friends, as well as Chase Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), a depressed ex-financier recently evicted from The Tower, and Slide (Eddie Murphy), a thug childhood acquaintance whom Josh bails out of Rikers to act as a kind of criminal consultant, Josh outlines a plan to break into the penthouse, where Shaw has been put on house arrest, and liberate the cash.
The ripped-from-the-headlines service economy payback aspect of Tower Heist doesn't warrant too much thought. Director Brett Ratner is a student of '80s action-comedy blockbusters, with their easy abandonment of plausible character whenever it stands in the way of a big scene—there is a bit here where a kindly old man plows a truck into the Macy's Day Parade that makes no sense whatever—and their topically hiss-worthy villainy. The Russians are out of season; Wall Street will do just as nicely.
As a heist movie, Tower Heist is as amateur as its crooks: the audience isn't even fully aware of who's in on the job when it kicks off, while other threads are left dangling—the intimate knowledge that Josh boasts of The Tower's residents never actually comes into play. (There is, however, a well-handled, process-oriented sequence that occurs during the heist, which involves improvising a way to get a large, crazy-unwieldy piece of loot from the penthouse to the street, which makes striking use of the building's vertiginous height.) The heist film is traditionally the most craftsmanlike, director's-movie genre, much given to blueprints, precise planning, and stopwatch-timed rehearsal, coaching the viewer on what's to be done at every stage. Here, the scenes where you'd usually be getting drilled on the plan of action are all about round-table riffing, not architectural filmmaking. This slapdash gang can't even stay on-topic—Josh's PowerPoint slideshow digresses into a bull session about female anatomy, with inspired contributions from Murphy.
More than the marquee names, the second bananas keep the movie bobbing along: Broderick's pharmaceutically vague hangdog act is perfect ("If you need me, I'll be living in this box"), while Peña turns out to be a fine comedian, an enthusiastically yipping dumb puppy here. Scene-for-scene, though, Leoni is the best thing going: Her blue-collar deadpan rings truer than Stiller's; they have a boozing scene together that she ends by flipping a spray of bills onto the tabletop, straightening from a drunken totter to do a neat little girlish hop over a step-down on her way towards the door. Tower Heist earns a viewer's goodwill with these little comic flicks of the wrist when signing out of scenes, accents that tend to go over bigger than the bolded punchlines. (The script, credited to Ted Griffin and frequent Ratner collaborator Jeff Nathanson, has lived through a hundred rewrites, including an alleged Noah Baumbach polish.)
An affable, crowd-pleasing director with his hugely successful Rush Hour franchise, Ratner is at times near to crowd-pandering here. But Tower Heist deserves credit as a clean, well-turned job, fleet and funny and inconsequential. It gets in and gets out quickly. . . . and leaves no trace once it's gone.