Financial Fiasco

'Tower Heist' turns a Bernie Madoff-like story into a decent-enough comedy

Do you think Bernie Madoff is sorry? Is he remorseful over the billions and billions of dollars he stole from people? Whatever he may say about it these days, the smart money—which at the time would have included cash that people invested with Madoff—says that if he hadn't been caught, he'd still be defrauding anyone who asked for his help. Because why would he stop?

Madoff made a ton of money, but there were others who benefited as well, including JPMorgan Chase, which is estimated to have earned up to $1 billion in interest and fees from Madoff's crimes. And on the weekend when some outraged consumers moved their money from large corporate banks like Chase into community banks and credit unions (an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street), Tower Heist put a fictionalized Bernie Madoff on the big screen.

Timing is everything. Well, next to money, anyway.

The model is fairly obvious: This is just Ocean's Eleven with everyday folks instead of glamorous career criminals. Their target is not a casino, and their motive is not sheer sport, but Tower Heist walks in most of the other footprints of orchestrated-heist capers. So in this analogy, Ben Stiller, playing luxury-apartment-building manager Josh Kovacs, is George Clooney as Danny Ocean. You're welcome, Ben Stiller.

Josh has worked for more than a decade at The Tower, serving the extravagant needs of New York's wealthiest. One of the tenants is financier Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda). Shaw has a good relationship with the staff, so much so that he agreed to manage the group pension plan several years earlier.


The feds had been watching Shaw for a while over securities-fraud allegations, and when he's finally arrested, all of the residents find out the hard way that they've been taken for their life savings. An FBI agent with a soft spot for hard liquor (Téa Leoni) lets it slip that most criminals like Shaw keep some of their ill-gotten gains at close range, just in case they ever get a chance to leave the country. Josh soon realizes that the money has to be somewhere in Shaw's apartment—and he thinks he knows where.

Josh assembles something short of a dream team to help him break into Shaw's place, including his brother-in-law (Casey Affleck); an elevator operator with very limited training in anything (Michael Peña); a former Wall Street guy who has just been evicted from The Tower (Matthew Broderick); and Slide (Eddie Murphy), a low-level street criminal with a machine-gun mouth.

Tower Heist will certainly tap into the still-festering distrust many people have of the financial sector. Though the names involved suggest the film operates as a comedy, it does make a few serious points, too. There's a doorman set to retire from The Tower who learns all the money he's invested with Arthur Shaw went to keep up the appearance that Shaw himself was still thriving, even though he'd been broke for months. Needless to say, the doorman doesn't take the news well.

The climax of a movie called Tower Heist had better be a heist, but it needn't be as silly as this one. There is some misdirection devised by Josh and company that is mostly effective, but the majority of the heist spirals out of control. It's less fun to watch than even some of the movie's dramatic moments. Blame director Brett Ratner for that; he's known for the Rush Hour movies, all of which have gigantic endings that the stories never can support.

The cast provides a good foundation, though. When he's not overly hammy, like he is in those Night at the Museum and Fockers movies, Ben Stiller can be a strong comedic lead. He finds the right tone here, and never lets the comedy overpower his performance. The film features one of Eddie Murphy's better appearances in a while, too. There's irony in Murphy playing such a prominent role, however. After all, with The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Meet Dave and Imagine That, Murphy was paid much more than each movie made back. He's like the Madoff of matinees.

It's not worth it to emphasize most of the other performances; they're just call-and-response roles. But Alan Alda is so good when he wears a bad-guy suit, and he's done more of that over the past few years, escaping the image burned into the nation's memory as Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H. Like most of the others, his role is predictably written, but batting-practice pitches are supposed to be easy to hit for a reason. Some guys just get more distance.

Tower Heist likely won't make anyone forget the real frauds, or even make anyone feel better about the whole financial fiasco. But it's a good-enough pie in the face.

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