Lock enough monkeys in a room with a typewriter, and one of them will eventually bang out “Hamlet.” Lock Brett Ratner in a room with enough gifted comedians — among them Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Matthew Broderick, Alan Alda and Michael Peña — and eventually they will produce a farce as animated and effortlessly diverting as “Tower Heist.”
Ratner, whose last big-screen offering, “Rush Hour 3,” sucked Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan’s amiable chemistry into a void of numbing banality, should be smart enough to know that lazy storytelling is no laughing matter, however furiously his actors work to compensate. (So should Stiller. Remember “Mystery Men”?)
Yet there is never a sense that the director or his shrewdly assembled cast is coasting here.
“Heist” isn’t the smartest movie to confront America’s financial crisis and the culpability of soulless swindlers such as Bernie Madoff, but it’s one of the funniest, thanks as much to Murphy’s hilarious, rapid-fire verbal assaults as Ratner’s unusually disciplined approach.
Murphy, like Jamie Foxx in this summer’s “Horrible Bosses,” plays a criminal consultant, enlisted to help the clock-punching employees of a high-rise for the super-rich pull off the ultimate revenge fantasy.
After a Madoff-like tyrant (Alda) rips off their pensions, his embittered servants — led by straight man Josh (Stiller) — resolve to steal what’s left of his fortune.
The ensuing mischief is every bit as far-fetched as Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson’s broad, easily accessible screenplay requires it to be. Despite a premise seemingly given to social satire, “Heist” is less a populist call to arms than a popcorn caper that plays skillfully on popular resentment of the top 1 percenters.
In the past, Ratner might have leaned too heavily on Murphy to deliver the funny, as he did with the motor-mouthed Tucker in three increasingly desperate “Rush Hour” adventures. Here, he unleashes the former stand-up — once a viable candidate for funniest man on the planet — at the movie’s halfway point. Wise move.
Like the great white shark in “Jaws,” Murphy’s arrival has the effect of an adrenaline shot. Recapturing the manic, profane zeal he displayed in “Beverly Hills Cop” and his greatest, purest comedy, “Coming to America,” the 50-year-old veteran ignites the screen, deftly playing a trash-talking Penn to Stiller’s more subdued (but not unfunny) Teller.
The spell they cast is short-lived — “Heist” lacks the substance to stay with you past the closing credits — but it’s awfully fun while it lasts.
Starring Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick
Written by Ted Griffin, Jeff Nathanson
Directed by Brett Ratner
Running time 1 hour 44 minutes