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By Rick Kisonak | November 16, 2011

There are at least four robberies associated with this film and only two of them appear in the screenplay. There is, of course, the embezzlement of billions by Arthur Shaw, a Bernie Madoff-type played by Alan Alda. And there is the revenge theft plotted by employees of the Manhattan luxury high-rise he resides atop after learning he pocketed the retirement savings they entrusted him with investing. If you’ve caught the trailer, you’ve already learned this much and seen most of the movie’s funniest moments.

Somewhere along the line, the buzz on Tower Heist became the promise that it would provide a vehicle for the long-awaited comeback of Eddie Murphy. Not the Eddie Murphy of family films and dopey latex-encased characters but the edgy Eddie Murphy capable of making grown ups laugh several administrations ago. If you’ve seen the trailer, believe it or not, you’ve also seen a shockingly large percentage of the screen time the actor was accorded. He’s barely there. Which brings us to rip-off number three:

Tower Heist was Murphy’s idea. I kid you not. What he envisioned was an all-black variation on the Ocean’s Eleven formula. The suits he pitched loved the concept. Except the part about the stars being black. In the end, Universal agreed to make the picture but with a multi-ethnic, mostly white cast, a legendarily lame director (Brett Ratner, whose principal contribution to American cinema has been limiting the number of Rush Hour comedies he helmed to just three) and with Murphy relegated to an underwritten bit part.

Ben Stiller is the movie’s star. He’s Josh, the professional suck up who manages the Tower. The first half of this nearly two hour long credibility stretcher consists of nothing more than a cavalierly paced introduction to the main characters. So we watch and wait as he fawns over the building’s residents. We eventually meet Matthew Broderick’s Mr. Fitzhugh, a sad sack who’s been sacked by Merrill Lynch, lost his family and faces eviction. Casey Affleck is Charlie, a distracted concierge whose wife is expecting-a fact which never actually impacts the story. Michael Pena’s a bellhop, Gabourey Sidibe’s a Jamaican maid and Stephen Henderson is the doorman who finds out he’s lost everything on what he thought was his last day of work.

Josh handed over their savings without consulting his coworkers so feels duty bound to hatch a scheme to get the money back. He decides this requires breaking into the billionaire’s penthouse. (Politically Incorrect Plot Point Alert:) Since he has zero experience in this area, he recruits Murphy’s character on the basis of his being black and having “been arrested a bunch of times.”

The climactic heist is a preposterous bit of logic-defying nonsense. Between the overlong set up and the silly finale, however, is a stretch of fifteen, maybe twenty minutes during which the unlikely crew prepares for the big day and this is where most of what passes for funny business can be found.

The movie is most effective when Murphy is on screen tutoring his mild mannered gang in the ways of grand larceny. He doesn’t attain the sassy heights of his Axel Foley heyday but comes close enough to remind us what a force of nature he once could be. So we watch in utter bafflement as, again and again, Ratner rushes him off screen, robbing the actor of the chance to strut his stuff and the audience of a shot at getting its money’s worth. I guess, technically, that qualifies as five rip-offs.

Rarely have so many (on top of the ensemble cast, five-count-em-five-writers) gone to so much trouble only to produce so little in the way of honest to god film fun. In the age of Apatow, an old fashioned caper comedy like Tower Heist might have proven an entertaining novelty. But that’s the thing about going old school: There’s not much point if a filmmaker hasn’t learned from past mistakes.

Honestly, I’m not sure this represents a step up from anything we would have gotten from a Rush Hour 4.

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