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Murphy back in form in funny ‘Tower Heist’

Star of '80s hits and misses sizzles again in topical comedy

POSTED: November 3, 2011 12:30 a.m.
David Lee/AP Photo/Universal Pictures

Ben Stiller, left, and Eddie Murphy are shown in a scene from "Tower Heist."

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Allow me to lead by answering what I think most of you are wondering about "Tower Heist."

Yes, Eddie Murphy is funny in this movie.

What a strange career Murphy has had. Those of us who are old enough remember how he exploded into American culture in the early '80s. Within a few episodes, he became the star of "Saturday Night Live's" second cast then proceeded to become the funniest, most bankable comedian of' '80s cinema.

For two decades now, though, Murphy's career has been all over the map. He added crucial voice work to a Shrek franchise that has outstayed its welcome, starred in two (some would argue the number is higher) of the worst movies of the past decade - "The Adventures of Pluto Nash" and "Norbit" - but probably should have won an Oscar for his dramatic performance in "Dreamgirls."

Yet even after disappointing us so many times, the thought of Murphy returning to classic form causes exaltation. Most actors would have burned all bridges with Murphy's track record, but fans still support him and would love to see him get the chance to be himself on screen again.

If you are one of those fans, prepare to be happy.

In "Tower Heist," Murphy is part of an impressive ensemble cast that centers on Ben Stiller, who plays Josh Kovacs, the manager of a luxurious New York City high-rise. Each unit in this condominium, called The Tower, costs in the millions, and Josh leads a staff that caters to all of the tenants' whims.

Josh has a particularly close relationship with Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a Wall Street heavy who lives in the penthouse apartment - an apartment that features, by the way, a rooftop pool with a $100 bill painted on the bottom and Steve McQueen's car parked in the living room.

Shaw appears to still be a simple kid from Astoria who just happened to strike gold. The Tower staff adore him, and Josh trusts him so much he asks Shaw to invest the entire staff's pension fund.

It turns out, though, that Shaw is a shyster who earned his riches by running a Ponzi scheme. An FBI unit, headed by Special Agent Claire Denham (Téa Leoni), soon comes to arrest Shaw, and Josh discovers that the staff's money is all lost.

Josh, concierge Charlie (Casey Affleck), doorman Enrique (Michael Peña), and a recently evicted tenant, a former broker named Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), scheme to break into Shaw's apartment. The FBI can't find Shaw's money, but Josh is certain Shaw has hidden it in the apartment.

Josh is much less certain, though, of how exactly to pull off the heist. So, much like the guys in "Horrible Bosses," Josh asks an ex-con named Slide (Murphy) to help them. Eventually Jamaican maid Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe), whose father made safes, will join the crew, too.

The movie deals openly and humorously with the racism implicit in Josh's decision to approach Slide, and the movie hits its stride once Slide and Odessa join the heist team.

Even with their expert assistance, though, our band of thieves encounters unexpected obstacles, and the movie injects some good, if forced, slapstick into a pretty good heist caper yarn.

Alda shines by playing somewhat against type. He is naturally likeable, but here he plays a stand-in for Bernie Madoff and all the other Wall Street figures that we currently hate. Ironically, Alda's charm works perfectly, because the only way these financial industry scumbags have succeeded is by being world class liars. The whole time Alda's Shaw is palling around with the staff and putting on his awe shucks façade, we sense something rotten underneath.

Ultimately, though, it's Murphy show much of the time. Murphy doesn't exactly steal "Tower Heist" from his extremely talented co-stars, but the movie wouldn't be much without him, either.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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