Thursday, 3 November 2011

Tower Heist; works better than I expected

Which may have been the mission statement for the whole movie, or just for the titular heist. Caper movies generally have two acts and a coda. In the first act, you set up the motivation for the caper, in the second act the careful plan goes wrong, and in the coda, whoever's been established as the villain of the piece gets suitably punished. Until recently you could never get away with the money. If the robbers were career villains, they had to get caught; if they were some variation on lovable scamps, they'd avoid prison but lose the money. Because crime wasn't supposed to pay.

That was before financial deregulation and "greed is good" of course. I don't pretend to be keeping track of the shifting moral dynamic of caper movies, but sometime around the 90s, the lovable scamps at least were allowed to start getting away with their misdemeanors. Which actually changes the experience of watching the movies, because for a long time you were just watching to see how it would all go wrong, but now you're half hoping that this is one of those movies where the robbery works out and everyone gets away with it.

Tower Heist stacks the deck on this one by making the quarry so detestable. Alan Alda is working overtime these days to put behind him his M*A*S*H* persona, and his billionaire investment fraudster character is a nicely judged portrait of charm laid thinly over despicable selfishness. You want to see the scrappy underdogs get away with what they're doing; but even more important than seeing them win, you want to see Alan Alda lose. The other weapon in the armory is a back-to-form Eddie Murphy. Somehow, Eddie Murphy has finally made a film where he isn't in a fat suit, isn't playing a woman and isn't playing every character in the movie. He isn't even a dominant presence in the movie; he's just there, hitting his marks and being consistently funny. Which makes a pleasant change, even if all he's doing is riffing on the character he played in 48 Hours, or rather on what that character might have been like if he'd spent the next twenty years getting into trouble and narrowly back out again. Joining him for nostalgia week, Matthew Broderick may be playing the ultimate working out of Ferris Bueller, but it's hard to see any trace of Ferris' exuberance in the worn out, pouchy, mid-life pummeled Mr FitzHugh. Time is cruel to us all, but there's something about missing cheekbones which always makes me wince in empathy.

The movie is efficiently slung together by veteran safe pair of hands Bret Ratner. Studios love him because everything comes in on time and under budget, and that lean efficiency is hard at work in Tower Heist, where literally nothing is wasted. Every single expensive shot in the movie comes in handy for something relevant to the plot. It's like a vast Chekhov's gun, although the impressive bit is that Bret keeps things on the move efficiently enough that it's only afterwards you realize how mechanical it's all been.

That the movie works at all as a movie is down to the pacing; the set up of the first act is slow and deliberate, with everyone's motivations sketched in very solidly so that you can see how a bunch of glorified waiters would try to steal from the world's second or third richest swindler. The second act is quick and clean; the heist isn't absurdly complicated, and each step of it going wrong seems unforced and natural.

All in all, it's more fun than you have any right to expect from a Bret Ratner movie. Though the much vaunted efficiency does take a holiday near the end. Eddie Murphy barricades Judd Hirsch into a closet and turns up the workmen's radio to drown out his cries for help; five minutes later most of the principal cast is in the same unfinished apartment and yet there's no sound from the radio, and nothing at all to indicate that there's anyone stuck in a closet. Ratner might have got away with it, except that he cuts back to Hirsch afterward and he's still in the closet, and the radio is still on.

Finally, Casey Affleck is, I think, one of the most unassuming actors of his generation. I can't get over his willingness to play idiots when he's good-looking enough to insist on getting the character rewritten to something less remedial.

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