Tower Heist AKA Occupy Hollywood

Again I write to you from my lonely vigil in the Occupy My Recliner movement, my stand—or recline—against tyranny. I’ve had it up to here with taking orders from The Man—or, actually, The Woman—since it’s my wife giving the orders. Dig this: she refuses to let me use the mortgage money to buy a home theater system! Plus she makes me clean up after myself. I am the 99%! And I’m not going to take it anymore!

(Short break here while I wash the dishes, take out the garbage, and rake some leaves.)

Back now. So where was I? OK, the point is the timing couldn’t have been better for Tower Heist, released during the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement that’s taking place around the country and the world. And for the flying cutlery that followed me out the door as I escaped to a matinée. It’s in the same vein as Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar (1978), about a band of blue-collar amateur thieves who commit a crime for a good cause. Here, the good guys set out to rob an evil one-percenter who has bilked millions from innocent investors.

It’s not a great movie, but reviewers who are knocking it for not being funny enough are, I think, missing the point. I found myself laughing more often than I do at most so-called comedies, though the humor is more often social than silly. In an effort to explain why the evil one-percenter has stolen even from the building’s lowly staff, the Casey Affleck character says he probably needed the cash to keep up appearances. “At a certain point,” he says, “it isn’t about securities fraud. It’s about catering.” You don’t laugh, but you give a painful grimace at the fundamental truth of the observation. For me, that’s worth any number of fart jokes.

As the title indicates, at its heart, this is a heist movie. And as in Blue Collar, the laughs begin to die off when the heist begins. As it should be. If the characters joke their way through the heist, we’re less inclined to believe that failure matters or that they’re in any real danger.

I have to say that a scene involving an open window-wall on an upper floor of a high-rise gave me plenty of cause for anxiety. And, yes, it was so a large pop I spilled in my lap.

It’s a heist movie with a message, about the exploitation of the working class, which may be another part of its problem. We Hammericans not only like our genres clearly defined; we like our comedies simple, with no more than a hint of theme. Here the filmmakers keep the exploitation theme at the forefront, making our laughter nervous at times.

The heist itself is outlandish, ridiculous, etc., but it’s played out just realistically enough to make you ignore how impossible it would be for the thieves to do what they do. I’m trying not to include any spoilers here, but let me just say that complications are piled upon complications so that, by the end, only a combination of dumb luck and sprezzatura allows our heroes to pull off the robbery. Tower Heist is a movie where the little guy wins, which means it satisfies one of the fundamental myths of our culture.

Ben Stiller can be very funny. Here he plays the apartment building’s general manager, a man who’s intent on taking care of his tenants as well as his employees. When he learns that the Bernie Madoff knock-off may have stolen all the staff’s money, his first reaction is to believe that the accused—played with snake-eyed charm by Alan Alda—is innocent until proven guilty. His next move is to question the man himself. His next is to flip out in a rip-roaring rage. And then comes the cold-eyed schemer.

In other words, the classic Ben Stiller character.

The source of Stiller’s humor is that he often plays a fundamentally realistic character who’s being pushed closer and closer to the edge and then reacts—often over-reacts—to the insanity around him. His character’s deepest desire—here and in so many movies—is to fix things. Think, for instance, of his role in the Night at the Museum movies, each of which is a race to restore order, to get all the museum’s occupants back onto their pedestals and into their display cases.

The rest of the cast is strong. Casey Affleck, for my money, is always interesting, and it’s fun to see him in something lighter than what he’s been playing of late. Here he’s the harried father-to-be, who has his doubts about whether he should take part in the robbery. Michael Peña is good as the guy who probably has more experience at robbery than at the job he’s been hired for. And Téa Leoni is good as the put-upon FBI agent who has sympathy for what Stiller and the others want to do, but won’t let them get away with it, if she can help it. Matthew Broderick has some good lines as the out-of-work Wall Streeter who can’t get used to the fact that his entire life has been repossessed. And Gabourey Sidibe is funny as the maid from the Islands who’s desperate for a husband, but not so desperate that she’ll sacrifice the twenty million in the rich guy’s safe.

Don’t get me wrong—there isn’t an Oscar-worthy performance in the bunch, but maybe a couple of Felix-worthy ones.

If nothing else, see the movie to catch up with Eddie Murphy, who plays an older version of the characters he played so well in 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop—a fast-talking street hustler and cut-rate thief. His character, knowing that stealing anything worth over a thousand dollars makes the crime a felony in New York, only robs balconies. “What do you steal—lawn furniture?” Broderick asks.

At least one reviewer has found fault with the movie because we can see Murphy’s crow’s feet. Let me take a moment here to explain to the reviewer that that’s because the man is middle-aged! I mean, is the reviewer really suggesting that Murphy should get a face-lift? Sheesh. Murphy gets some of the best lines. My only disappointment is that, while we get to see all the other characters’ fates, we don’t get to see Murphy’s. A quick scene nestled among the credits would have made a nice monk’s gift (to use Roger Ebert’s lovely term).

OK, that last observation, the one about the fate of Eddie Murphy’s character? That was The Sleeper’s, not mine. She didn’t sleep a wink, by the way.

P.S. Anyone interested in an Occupy Hollywood movement? After all, by some estimates, only 1% of actors make it big in Hollywood. I’ll bet the stats for writers and directors are about the same. Let’s hear it for the 99%!

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The Biddable Oscars

Oscar statuetteJulie Gray has an interesting entry in her always-interesting blog Just Effing Entertain Me about why she doesn’t watch the Oscars anymore. It kind of stops you in your tracks. Here’s a woman who runs a highly regarded screenwriting contest and who works in the industry. And she doesn’t watch the Oscars? Sacrilege! But I have to say that, after watching this year’s ceremony—every tedious minute from red carpet to good night—I see her point.

The Oscar ceremony has always been an overproduced and under-imagined affair—an extended promo for the industry. And that’s been all right because there were moments that caught you by surprise: Sasheen Littlefeather refusing Brando’s Oscar for The Godfather; the streaker running past David Niven, who opined that the man was showing off “all his shortcomings”; Jack Palance doing those one-armed push-ups; any minute of any of Billy Crystal’s performances as host. Yes, my friends, there was a time when it was still possible to be surprised. But that time has passed.

The most potentially surprising moment in last night’s ceremony was Melissa Leo’s dropping of the f-bomb, but that was neatly censored on the fly. And I have to say that, as much as I admire James Franco and Anne Hathaway, I can’t help thinking that actors were chosen to host this year because they’re more biddable than comedians. They’re trained to hit their marks and say their lines and not embarrass anyone.

My wife (and writing partner) and I sometimes print out ballots and compete to see who can guess the most wins. But this year we didn’t touch them. What’s the point? The winner would just be the person who’s best at identifying the predictable choices of mediocre minds. Am I saying Hollywood minds are mediocre? No, no, no! I mean, yes, yes, yes! But they’re no more mediocre and predictable than the minds of the rest of us. Any time a group of people are polled, you’re going to get the lowest common denominator. What was it Thoreau said? “Any man more right than his neighbor is a majority of one.”

Was The King’s Speech really the best movie of the year? Or is it just one more example of Oscar’s tendency to over-praise all things English? A high-born man overcomes his stutter to deliver an important speech without a hitch. Yes, Colin Firth is great at depicting the pain and embarrassment of such an affliction. But is there enough story there? And best director? Really? I mean, really?

While I enjoyed the performances of the best actor winners, especially Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, didn’t they seem over-the-top, especially Natalie Portman’s performance, which was all high school histrionics. It’s sad that Oscar always goes for the loud and over-determined performance instead of the solid, affecting, quieter, and more real performances of actors like Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right), and Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine).

But there were at least two well-deserved Oscars of the night. The Social Network won for best editing. In case you haven’t seen it, The Social Network is a movie about typing. And here’s the twist: it’s about typing on a computer keyboard! The editors deserve the win for making typing look sexy and exciting. It’s not. The other deserving win came to Inception for best visual effects, a no-brainer. What’s it about? Visual effects. “No, no,” I hear you say, “it’s about dreams and reality and—“ Actually, it’s about visual effects. Period.

Maybe the Oscar ceremony was never more than one long infomercial for the movie industry, but wasn’t it once livelier, funnier, and more unpredictable? I’m with you, Julie. I’ll check the wins the day after. And I’ll watch whatever flubs and surprises are caught on Youtube. But Oscar, you and I are so done.