Throughout the aughts I persistently made the mistake of doubting Ben Stiller. He kept dropping trailers that made me think, “okay, this time he did it, he’s put out a piece of garbage.” Then, after eventually seeing the movie, I would be forced to concede that somehow he took a dumb concept and made at least a decent film out of it. Zoolander started it. It seemed impossible Starsky & Hutch could be good, but despite having never seen the original show I laughed throughout the entire movie. Dodgeball. I mean, the name said it all, right? Finally, I decided I would not doubt Ben Stiller. If someone read you a synopsis of The Heartbreak Kid you would think it’s a terrible film. Okay, the critics hated that one, but they were wrong. They were not wrong about Tower Heist. It is truly a terrible film.
Admittedly, after reviewing Ben Stiller’s IMDB, I realize he did put out some garbage during this period. I have not seen Envy, but there’s probably a reason I do not remember its release. I usually love everything Danny DeVito touches, but Duplex followed the dark comedy formula he laid out with Throw Momma from the Train a little too closely. And then there’s Tower Heist, which I just got around to watching. It might be the biggest disappointment of his career.
If an artificial intelligence was programmed to make a Ben Stiller comedy, it would make Tower Heist. For one lacking any aesthetic sensibility, it’s the perfect movie. I was reminded of my college screenwriting class as the screenplay could seamlessly overlay any of the major Hollywood formulas. Save the Cat? Check. Sid Field’s three-act structure? Check. Hero’s Journey? Check. It’s the type of screenplay that appears perfect when read by academics or Hollywood producers.
Tower Heist even has strong thematic considerations—Alan Alda’s Bernie Madoff inspired character is pitted against the help that tirelessly works to enhance his life of luxury after he defrauds them. Wealth disparity is directly explored both satirically and seriously. The audience must reconcile with how much more money means to the working class as one character attempts to throw himself before a train after losing his life’s savings. Another character barricades himself in his apartment to avoid eviction after losing everything. In this way, the film feels like an Adam McKay film, but with one major difference: Adam McKay would have made it good.
The main problem with Tower Heist is that it’s not funny despite being structured as a comedy. The jokes are mild, carefully sprinkled into a non-funny caper plot. The jokes are also often irrelevant to the plot, meaning the social criticism becomes detached from the humor. Effective satire requires these two elements to be inseparable. The exceptions prove the rule. For example, when Matthew Broderick’s character is holed up in his apartment fighting eviction, his missing furniture is replaced by makeshift blanket tents and he explains that he’s convinced the kids they’re indoor camping so as not to set off any alarms. These are the type of jokes that sting. Irreverent comedy can work, but only in irreverent comedies.
Perhaps the rule with Stiller should be that if it sounds like a bad idea, he’ll knock it out of the park. If it sounds like a good idea, it will probably be lame.