Can anyone remember the last time comedian Eddie Murphy was actually funny? No, voicing an animated donkey with a hankering for waffles doesn't count. I'm talking about Murphy debating boxing greats in Coming to America or hustling his way into a swanky suite in Beverly Hills Cop. Hell, I'd even take him parodying Mr. Roger's Neighborhood during his Saturday Night Live days if it would help me forget Norbit. Wherever you were in the '80s, chances are you were laughing at something Murphy was doing on screen or stage. Nowadays, you'd probably have better luck being entertained by his older brother Charlie.
If you believe the hype, however, Murphy's return to glory comes in full force with Tower Heist, a comedy crime caper the seeds of which date back to 2005 when Murphy was imagined teaming up with a host of other black comedians including Chris Tucker, Dave Chappelle, and Martin Lawrence. When that overly ambitious idea fell through, Tower Heist became a poor man's version of Ocean's 11 — even enlisting Ocean's screenwriter Ted Griffin and Ocean's supporting actor Casey Affleck. But Ocean's this is not. And while it's true that Murphy provides his best comedy outing since 1996's remake of The Nutty Professor (I still don't understand the love for Bowfinger), he's not given as much screen time as you'd think for someone who's billed so high. Honestly, this is a Ben Stiller movie and Murphy is just coming along for the ride.
Still, the ride has its moments with a solid cast who could easily make an impact off the bench in lieu of George Clooney, Brad Pitt, or Matt Damon. In fact, the diverse makeup of characters and personalities is what makes the movie so casually fun, at least for the first half of the heist. In the film, a group of hotel employees plot to take back the money they lost in a Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a Wall Street billionaire and tenant in the highrise. With little experience in thievery, the team — which includes Stiller, Affleck, Michael Peña (The Lincoln Lawyer), and Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) — recruits "Slide" Dalphael (Murphy), a common criminal with the know-how to exact revenge. Also joining in is actor Matthew Broderick (Election) as a former Wall Street investor who goes bankrupt because of Shaw's shady business ethics.
With every cog in place, you'd think this comedy machine, despite being directed by industry tool Brett Ratner (Rush Hour 3), would run smoothly. While the setup works well enough, the heist itself isn't executed on the page with much imagination. What's left is an amusing team of misfits bumbling around aimlessly in search of a disappointing payoff more ridiculous than naming a humanitarian award after Bernie Madoff.
While this might signal a comeback for Murphy, until he can stand front and center as the leading man he once was it will remain difficult to forgive him for the last 15 years (Meet Dave, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, I Spy). Hosting the Academy Awards this coming February just might be what he needs to prove Tower Heist wasn't a fluke. •
★★ 1/2 (out of 5)
Dir. Brett Ratner; writ. Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson; feat. Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick, Téa Leoni, Michael Peña, Gabourey Sidibe (PG-13)