Murphy Back In Form In “Tower Heist”

I’ve never been a huge Eddie Murphy fan, but I did like him in the “Beverly Hills Cop” and “48 Hours,” and I also thought he was great as the voice of the donkey in the “Shrek” series. On the other hand, his foray into donning fat suits for “The Nutty Professor” films and “Norbit” did absolutely nothing for me.

Murphy is best suited for playing smart-mouthed guys with a chip on their shoulders, and that’s why he is a lot of fun to watch opposite Ben Stiller in “Tower Heist,” an enjoyable and entertaining film that should please all those who like robbery or revenge movies because this one falls into both those categories.

“Tower Heist” is set in New York City (Where else would you put a story about a robbery in a tall building?), and much of the action occurs in a swanky condominium in Central Park, where Josh Kovacs (Stiller) is the manager of the building. In fulfilling his daily duties, Josh oversees a staff that includes Lester (Stephen Henderson), the popular doorman who knows all the tenants, and Enrique DevReaux (Michael Pena), a newly hired elevator operator and bellhop, Charlie (Casey Affleck), Josh’s down-on-his-luck brother-in-law who works as the concierge, and Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe), the maid.

Among the residents of the building is Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), an obscenely wealthy money grabber who occupies the penthouse atop the condos and who has just been sentenced to house arrest by the FBI pending an investigation into a scam that bilked $2 billion from those who invested in it. Among the victims are the members of Josh’s staff, who lost all of their pension plan money and other savings.

Obviously the staff members are devastated by this turn of events, but Josh is dedicated to them and decides to help them recoup their losses by robbing Shaw’s luxurious apartment. Josh is convinced that the scoundrel has millions stored in a secret wall safe, and if he can locate it, he and his staff will enjoy instant wealth. There’s only one small problem – Josh has no idea how to plan and pull off a successful heist. But he knows someone who will be able to help him.

Each day as he goes to work, Josh exchanges unpleasantries with a fellow named Slide (Murphy), a streetwise, trash-talking blowhard who is a small-time thief. Slide robs only balconies so that he can’t be charged with breaking and entering, and when Josh gets the idea to relieve Shaw of some of his millions, Slide is serving some time in jail. Josh bails him out, and at first Slide is both suspicious and belligerent, but when Josh tells him how much money is involved in the plan, Slide signs on.

As he begins to formulate a plot, Josh realizes that even if he locates the safe in Shaw’s place, he doesn’t have a clue about how to open it. But it just so happens that Odessa’s father was a safe cracker in Jamaica and taught her the craft or art or whatever you want to call it. And so it’s game on as Josh and his team of novice thieves (with the exception of Slide) prepare to pay Shaw back for stealing all their retirement money.

Ever since “The Great Train Robbery” back in 1903, Hollywood has churned out a veritable plethora of heist films, but I think of “Tower Heist” as a combination of robbery and revenge, and in that category one film is in league all by itself. Of course I’m talking about “The Sting,” an absolute classic starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Robert Shaw.

Although “Tower Heist” isn’t in the same ballpark with “The Sting,” it does offer a nice blend of humor, action, and mystery with a clever twist. And perhaps the best thing about it is that Eddie Murphy returns to the kind of role in which he excels instead of donning a fat suit and making a complete ass of himself. He and Stiller work very well together, and their repartee throughout the film is consistently clever and entertaining. In the film’s production notes, Murphy talked about returning to a role that is very familiar to him.

“The theme of the film, with the workers being taken advantage of by the rich folks and then turning the tables, is timeless. One of my earliest movies, ‘Trading Places,” was like that. Those themes work forever. It was fun for me to work on because I hadn’t done a role like that in a while. I’ve done a lot of family movies, and I’ve done a lot of projects in which the characters were not ‘street-y’ guys. There was a freshness to this.”

Also in the production notes, Stiller commented on how much he admires Murphy and his work.

“Eddie Murphy is iconic, especially for my generation. He defines a lot of what comedy is over the last 25 years, so it was very cool to work with him. I sometimes felt like an audience member as I watched him do his thing. I would think, ‘Wow, that’s good.  That’s going to be in the movie.’”

Alda is particularly effective in the part of the greedily predatory Shaw, who cares about nothing except amassing more and more wealth no matter who is hurt in the process. We usually think of Alda as playing nice guys, but in this film he manages to make Shaw perpetually despicable throughout the film.

All the members of this talented ensemble cast are excellent in their respective roles include Tea Leoni, who plays Claire Denham, the Special Agent for the FBI charged with investigating Shaw. And even though Sidibe doesn’t have a big part, her portrayal of Odessa is a real hoot.

The big secret that is revealed in the film is where Shaw actually stashed his money, and it’s a real surprise when you finally find out. In fact, it’s a stroke of genius, as you will see.

“Tower Heist” (Give it a seven.) certainly won’t contend for best picture of the year, but it provides good escape entertainment if you’re looking for something light to pass the time. It will put a smile on your face, and it’s worth the price of admission to see Murphy in a film sans the fat suit.

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