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Non-Review Review: Tower Heist

Hollywood has always had a strange way of reacting to current trends and realities as they exist outside the multiplex. Films tend to take a while to react to shifting cultural phenomena. That said, changes in response to particular incidents can be relatively swift. Gangster Squad was famously re-shot following the Aurora shootings and released less than a year later. Although still in the early stages of its production, Zero Dark Thirty was heavily re-worked after Osama Bin Ladin had been shot and killed. However, it’s the broader changes that Hollywood takes longer to acknowledge.

The Dark Knight was praised by The Washington Times as “the first great post-Sept. 11 film”, but this was in 2008 – almost seven years after the attacks. The 9/11 zeitgeist still lingers over American film and television. However, it’s telling that – only recently – have we seen reactions to the financial crisis creep into contemporary blockbuster cinema, as the studios try to acknowledge the shifting economic reality.

Tower Heist is very clearly an attempt to capitalise on some of the anger and the hurt generated by the failure of banks and official bodies to protect the average citizen from the financial collapse. It’s confused, muddled and a little disjointed, even if the intentions seem noble. It still feels a little disappointing that it took almost half a decade to produce this rather bland reaction.

A crash course in economics...

A crash course in economics…

To be fair, there have been any number of “worthy” films and television shows produced to explore the background and the finer details of the economic collapse. From Margin Call to Too Big to Fail, directors and writers have been trying to explore the circumstances that contributed to this meltdown. However, Tower Heist is something markedly different. It’s not about equity or leverage or the illusion of wealth or the struggle to stay afloat. It’s about a bunch of working stiffs trying desperately to make things right.

The staff of the eponymous apartment complex find their money swindled by a massively successful financial player, who just happens to live in the penthouse. The movie starts with an attempted suicide. The employees are politely informed by the FBI that they are very low down the list of debtors to be paid when this broker’s assets are liquidised. The white-collar criminal himself, however, likely won’t even spend any time in prison for what he did – due to a lack of evidence and his political and financial connections.

Talk about scoping out the place...

Talk about scoping out the place…

Arthur Shaw is a cartoon villain, a character who might as well have a moustache to twirl. He gloats and rants and raves about how he’s untouchable, lectures his poor victims about how stupid and how powerless they are, and is generally a fundamentally terrible human being. In short, he’s a nice target. He’s the kind of person we’d like to believe is responsible for the mess that we’re in, a sociopathic villain who is unambiguously evil and doesn’t even try to hide it.

That comfort in his vile nature is part of what makes him so easy to hate – Shaw doesn’t even bother to offer rationalisations or justifications for his actions. He’s comfortable in his own one-dimensional evil state. That makes it perfectly acceptable when a bunch of the staff at the tower decide to exact payback against Shaw by robbing his penthouse, lured by the possibility that there might be $20m hidden somewhere in his lavish living space.

It's a dirty job...

It’s a dirty job…

As such, Tower Heist marks an attempt to tap into the anger and frustration felt by those left wounded by financial malfeasance. Arthur Shaw, the movie suggests, will go entirely unpunished by the law – so we’re invited to cheer the working-class stiffs who decide to take the law into their own hands and do what the system very clearly cannot. Tower Heist is one of those wish-fulfilment comedies, the ones that invite the audience to fantasise about getting some form of payback.

As such, the film is drawn in the broadest possible terms. It isn’t inhabited by characters so much as archetypes, with little room for nuance or development. Ben Stiller’s Josh Kovaks is a fairly bland leading character, especially for a man tasked with organising a massive robbery. Arthur Shaw is a collection of generic “evil banker” clichés and there’s never a single moment that the film seems to think of him as anything more than a card-carrying villain.

They've certainly got drive...

They’ve certainly got drive…

The members of the team pulling the heist all loosely conform to particular archetypes, with none of them seeming especially well defined. Matthew Broderick is “the smart one”, capable of doing improbable calculations in his head. Michael Peña is “the dumb one”, who makes a series of improbably stupid decisions. Gabourey Sidibe plays “the crazy one”, with all manner of insane improvisation. Casey Affleck is “the family man”, the one with the most to lose and the character who probably should emotionally anchor the film, but is pushed too far into the background to be properly developed.

Tower Heist has generated a bit of attention as Eddie Murphy’s return to comedy, building off from a string of increasingly terrible projects. Murphy plays “the street smart one”, the only member of the gang with actual criminal experience. This is much stronger than anything Murphy’s done in quite some time, but it’s still less than brilliant. Murhy still has a bit of his trademark rapid-fire high-volume delivery, but there’s still a sense that he’s being toned down or hemmed in by the film – that Murphy is still trying to hard to play to a mass family-friendly audience instead of completely cutting loose.

Getting away from Alda that...

Getting away from Alda that…

In a way, that’s really the heart of the problem with Tower Heist. It seems to have recognised a gap in the market, and wants to play off a very palpable public frustration generated by the financial crisis, but it never really commits. This is still a feel-good comedy featuring a collection of quirky characters. The mark might by a corrupt banker, but the set-pieces and gags are all variations on formulas we’ve seen done better before.

Still, Tower Heist is an interesting watch, rather than a good film – it feels like you can see mainstream Hollywood attempting to engage with very real concerns inside the framework of a mass-market big-budget film. The results aren’t always as encouraging or as fluid as you might expect, but the effort is still fascinating to watch.

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