‘Tower Heist’: A Scheming Movie For An Era Of Downward Mobility

Brett Ratner is not exactly a producer of sophisticated entertainments or a sensitive societal compass, so I was prepared for Tower Heist to be a tiresome mess. It’s not a perfect movie, but he’s lucky enough to be working with a script that is acid — if not revolutionary — about the callousness of the 1 percent, and has action sequences that if not precisely believable, have some nicely scary bits. I’m not hugely fond of the movie’s main premise — that Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi schemers are responsible for the recession, rather than people doing risky but entirely legal things and taking advantage of people’s financial illteracy — but Tower Heist manages to be a nice movie about the pain of downward mobility.

It’s not easy to make me feel sorry for investment bankers who have fallen on hard times, but Matthew Broderick, as the depressed ex-Merrill Lynch trader who Josh Kovacs, the manager of the Tower, has to evict, actually succeeds. When Josh comes to tell him to get out, he asks if Mr. Fitzhugh knows anything about the markets. “I don’t know. I used to know. That’s why they hired me at Merrill Lynch,” Fitzhugh confesses mournfully. “I went to Yale 20 years ago. Now, I’m a squatter.” Later, when Josh comes and finds him in a miserable hotel, he explains in a perfect deadpan that “I’m thinking of becoming a male prostitute.” And he provides a bitter perspective on why Arthur Shaw took on the Tower employees’ pension fund even after his Ponzi scheme started collapsing, telling Josh that “At a certain point, it isn’t about securities fraud. It’s about catering.” Some folks on the right have used the idea that Occupy Wall Street has downwardly mobile participants as some sort of evidence that the movement is about preserving existing privileges rather than a just realignment of the system. But I tend to think that it’s more about a recalibration, a reminder that the American dream is about security and equal opportunity, rather than the promise of vast wealth.

There’s another nice reminder of that fact in the scene where Josh informs the staff that his decision to ask Shaw to manage their pension fund has left them broke. “I never asked anyone to triple my portfolio,” Odessa (a very funny Gabby Sidibe) tells him bitterly, exposing the ridiculousness of the promise Shaw used to haul Josh in. She just wanted a reasonable rate of return. Lester, the doorman whose planned retirement is ruined by Shaw’s fraud, just wanted to go on a cruise with his wife. It was Josh, who listens to a ludicrous lifestyle radio show about cheese so he can recommend food and wine pairings to Shaw, and mistakes their chess games and Shaw’s professions of familiarity for friendship, who let himself get sucked into an unsustainable dream.

A key question for a lot of folks about this movie is what it means for Eddie Murphy’s career. He gives a good performance in a deeply annoying trope, the black man hired by pasty white dudes to teach them how to commit crimes. But he’s not nearly as much fun as Gabby Sidibe, proving she can crush comedy as well as drama in her turn as Odessa, the Jamaican maid turned safecracker for the team. I can see how some folks might see her as a stereotypical sassy, curvy black woman. But she’s refreshingly and hilariously tough and pragmatic, entering the movie to inform Josh, “My work visa is about to expire. You must find me a husband!” and later, when her plan to drug an FBI agent with a piece of cake fails, explaining nonchalantly, “He’s allergic to chocolate. I had to beat him.” And honestly, it’s nice to see a movie where a woman can be a member of a team not because she’s a hot distraction, but because she has skills that are absolutely vital to the operation.