I live in Los Angeles, a place where there's a pizza restaurant so fancy and so popular that you have to make reservations to go there. I've been to this place, and the pizza is incredible, worth the effort and the wait. But the truth is that if you're feeling lazy the delivery from Pizza Hut will do you just fine.
"Just fine" and "okay" and "sure, whatever" are the stripped-down thoughts I always have after leaving a Brett Ratner movie. Other journalists, other critics, are all standing around, rolling their eyes at each other in the lobby or parking garage of whatever screening room we were all just in, and the only words that come out of my mouth are, "Okay, sure, whatever, it was fine."
Rush Hour? Okay. Rush Hour 2? Fine. X-Men: The Last Stand? Not nearly as terrible as you remember, seriously. Family Man? Okay, yes, rotten, but that other one with Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek, whatever it was called? Perfectly acceptable. I think I find it impossible to hate Ratner's movies because, in the world of pizza, he would be a high-end frozen variety or a very good Papa John's 2-for-the-price-of-1 coupon deal. And I can accept that.
Now, the fact that Ratner doesn't need coupon deals in his life anymore himself is one of the problems with Tower Heist. Jamaican housekeeper Gabourey Sidibe manages to convey simmering rage when, after learning that Wall Street criminal Alan Alda, a Bernie Madoff-alike, has stolen her investment and pension money, she deadpans, "I never asked anyone to triple my portfolio." But nowhere else in this movie is there a sense of the desperation or the dead-end frustration that working people feel when they realize the game's been rigged. Maybe it would have helped if Ratner had made his personal assistant read aloud to him from Barbara Ehrenreich's undercover reportage book about the minimum wage, Nickel and Dimed, before the shoot.
The other problem is the heist itself. These revenge-minded service employees, led by Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, concoct a plan to, in Stiller's words, "take everything back from the feudal lords." But it's not much of a plan. Part of watching a great heist movie is witnessing the mechanics of the score. And the premise here is that the staff of this high-rise luxury condo tower know the place like the backs of their hands, giving them the insider's edge. But when the moment comes to set the wheels in motion, the movie resorts to last-second, unplanned coincidences to propel the crime-heroes to victory. Sure, whatever, at least the action sequences are cool.
But here's the reason you'll keep ordering pizza from Brett Ratner: he can usually make you laugh. He stocked this one with funny character actors like Michael Pena and the reliably miserable Matthew Broderick. But most importantly, Ratner just gave Eddie Murphy back to us. That's sort of a big deal. Yes, Dreamgirls delivered a welcome, unusual, dramatic Eddie Murphy nobody was expecting, but the Eddie Murphy we miss is the man from 48 Hours and Trading Places. People bought tickets to The Nutty Professor and Norbit, but not because they were good movies. They went because earlier, in other films, when Murphy was on fire and funny, he earned that much residual goodwill. Here you get a PG-13 version of the motormouthed, rubber-faced guy you love. The movie kicks into gear when he shows up, owes most of what it earns to his energy and will make you feel okay with the idea of giving your pizza money to millionaires. Just fine.