It's harder to imagine a meatier -- and more wasted -- ensemble than what Brett Ratner has at his disposal in "Tower Heist." In theory, what we have here is a potentially entertaining payback story about blue-collar New Yorkers who unite against the affluent resident (Alan Alda) of a Manhattan high-rise, plotting to steal his riches back after he destroys their earnings with a Ponzi scheme. It's only a mild spoiler to mention that they get the job done.
But the real theft involves moviegoers' wallets, which are bound to open up this weekend in hopes of it being a better movie. The release of "Tower Heist" on Friday puts Ratner's Hollywood domination in focus and creates the opportunity to consider some alternatives.
Led by committed building manager Josh (Ben Stiller), the staff in "Tower Heist" includes several generations of name talent: Michael Peña, Casey Affleck and Gabourey Sidibe bring the youth contingency, Stiller and Matthew Broderick round out the fortysomethings and Eddie Murphy (who turned 50 in April) looms just above them as the shifty thief Josh hires to help with the heist. Téa Leoni plays an aggressive FBI agent simultaneously committed to taking down Alda's character while inexplicably falling for Josh's off-putting charms. Among the grey-haired veterans, Alda has company from Judd Hirsch in a minor role.
These are actors who could take a glass of water and make it funny, charming or profound at will, if the material allows. "Tower Heist" mostly holds down such possibilities with a plot lifted from "Ocean's Eleven" and only occasionally enlivened by the build-up to the big finale.
There is a certain large-scale Hollywood charm, mainly in the cockamamie action sequences; among these, a climax set during Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade features the same goofy slapstick and daring stuntwork that made Ratner's "Rush Hour" franchise a blockbuster hit. Still, "Tower Heist" fails to become anything more than a mild guilty pleasure -- the modus operandi of Ratner's oeuvre.
Ratner supposedly chose Murphy to host the Oscars after making this film, but the movie feels like an audition for the job. To be fair, Ratner has made worse movies equally poised for major box office returns, but nothing matches the smugness on display here. While mildly funny at times, the plot is wildly inconsistent, at first treasuring the workers' struggles and then just celebrating the art of the steal.
In theory, and for some parts of its solid first act, "Tower Heist" taps into the zeitgeist by channeling the rage currently epitomized by the Occupy Wall Street. Those seeking a more perceptive look at the battles of less fortunate and unemployed members of society should look no further than "Take Shelter," Jeff Nichols' startling parable in which Michael Shannon plays a broke family man plagued by visions of the apocalypse. Shannon's phenomenal performance perfectly evokes the sense of confusion that accompanies any personal crisis, economic or otherwise -- although, unlike "Tower Heist," it's not remotely funny.
For that outlet, however, there's another cure: Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's deadpan near-masterpiece "Le Havre," also out now, harkens back to his 1980's-era "Proletariat Trilogy" with an alternately poignant and cheery adventure about an aging shoe shiner committed to helping a young illegal immigrant evade the police. Kaurismaki's sympathy for sad, alienated men and women from working-class backgrounds makes his filmmaking more relevant than ever before.
Of course, some audiences would rather go to the movies to forget about these things and "Tower Heist" gives them the option of pretending that a happy ending is around every corner. Ratner's film enables that delusion, but there's a superior ensemble piece currently in theaters that dismantles it. "Margin Call" is a chronicle of the financial collapse almost entirely set in a single office. The cast features a half dozen first-rate performances from a similarly broad spectrum, from Zachary Quinto to Kevin Spacey. With its morbid portrayal of a corrupt investment bank on the brink of screwing over its clients, "Margin Call" puts a chilling face on corporate greed. It's not a whole lot better than "Tower Heist," but at least somewhat closer to the truth.