*Tower Heist (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
For a critic, there are few pleasures more satisfying than ripping into a bad movie. But one of those few is discovering that a film that you were expecting to hate — after all, this is directed by Brett Ratner, for whom the term "fauxteur" was rightfully coined — turns out to be wonderful.
Of course Tower Heist is goofy high-concept; the title alone makes it sound like a parody of itself. When the working-class schmoes who keep a ritzy Manhattan residential building running efficiently discover they've been defrauded out of their pensions by one of the residents, a Wall Street sleaze they should never have trusted with their very hard-earned money, they decide to rob him of his millions as literal payback.
It's as simple as that. Throw in Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, neither of whom has good recent track records with live-action studio comedies, and it sounds like a recipe for idiotic disaster.
And yet it works. I couldn't believe it as I was watching: I found myself feeling genuine sympathy for Stiller's smoothly competent building manager, because he is not a caricature, and he's certainly not the Ben Stiller Cartoon Punching Bag he's taken to playing in too many movies.
And his co-workers — maids and elevator operators, doormen and concierges, played in key roles by Michael Peña, Gabourey Sidibe and Casey Affleck — are treated by the film with a frankly shocking level of respect, even when it comes to their silly quirks played for laughs.
There are some nicely sharp satirical elements of class warfare here that could not be more of-the-moment. Alan Alda's slimy hedge-fund manager, Arthur Shaw, should have known better than to piss off the people he pays to know every intimate detail of his life. Except he was used to the "little people" in his life not realizing the power they could wield over him ... or being too honest and upstanding to take advantage of their knowledge. Now, though: "We've been casing this place for over a decade," Stiller's Josh Kovacs notes to his co-workers once they've decided to pull their heist. "We just didn't know it."
But it's thievery and heartlessness that make up the villainy here, not wealth. Matthew Broderick's Chase Fitzhugh is a Tower resident getting foreclosed upon, but he too is treated with respect and sympathy for his plight. (It hurts to lose your home even if you're rich, or were.) In a remarkable confluence, Tower Heist mirrors, under the comedy, the anger of the Occupy movement. There is no demonization of the wealthy here, but there is rage at inequity and injustice.
On top of all the juicily satisfying fury, the actual heist stuff is clever and original (if completely preposterous). The action is fresh and funny. There's the real New York vibe that can come only from shooting in New York — the finale set among and around the Thanksgiving Day parade is ingenious. And most refreshingly, none of the humor is cheap or sordid, even when it's occasionally raunchy. It is, God help me, astonishingly sweet.
I'm truly stunned by how much I love Tower Heist. But delightedly so. Seriously, see this movie and ask yourself why more big, silly entertainments can't be this smart.